From prophet to king: how and why Jesus laid claim to David’s throne

In my last post I argued that Jesus initially presented himself as a spirit-anointed prophet rather than as a spirit-anointed king (i.e. the Messiah). The following lines supported this conclusion.

  1. Most people thought Jesus was, or at least claimed to be, a spirit-possessed prophet (Mark 6:15, 14:65, Matthew 21:11, Luke 7:16; 39, 24:19, John 4:19, 6:14, 7:40, 9:17). On the other hand, few, if any, considered Jesus to be the messianic king prior to his final trip to Jerusalem.
  2. Jesus openly characterized himself as a prophet (Mark 6:4, Luke 13:33, John 4:44). Being “full of the holy spirit,” Jesus maintained, as would any prophet, that his words and deeds came not from himself, but from God (Luke 4:1; 14; 18, 10:22, John 10:32, 12:49, 14:10). Moreover, Jesus gave his ministry a predominantly prophetic form: according to the earliest sources, he came in order to announce the approach of God’s kingdom (cf. Mark 1:14-15; 38-39, Matthew 15:24, Acts 3:22-26), not to establish and rule that kingdom as king. Jesus’ royal claims, so it seems, emerged only after he had for the last time set his face toward Jerusalem.
  3. Neither Jesus’ prophetic pretensions nor the impressions of the crowds are likely to have been invented given the christological trajectory of the early Christians. Owing largely to his exaltation to God’s throne, Jesus’ role as messianic king quickly overshadowed his more primitive role as prophet. The prophet of the Lord’s day rapidly became the king of the Lord’s kingdom—that is, the agent and benefactor of the eschaton.

The prophet like Elijah

I argued, more specifically, that like his predecessor John, Jesus cloaked himself in the prophetic mantle of Elijah. Jesus was not just any prophet, he was the prophet like Elijah.

The evidence for this was twofold.

  1. The testimony of the crowds. Onlookers suspected that John and Jesus were Elijah redivivus (John 1:21, Mark 6:15, 8:28, cf. Luke 9:54). Whether John and Jesus intended the comparison or not, their ministries invoked Elijah and Elisha in the minds of their contemporaries.
  2. The testimony of the tradition. The earliest traditions about Jesus present their protagonist as an Elijah-like prophet in various ways. As one of many examples, Jesus, like Elijah, begins his ministry by spending forty days in the wilderness, being served by angels and tempted to forego his mission (cf. 1 Kings 19:4-8, Mark 1:12-13). Furthermore, many of Jesus’ deeds of power in the synoptic traditions are modeled after wonders performed by Elijah and Elisha.

The best explanation for this data, I would propose, is that John and Jesus purposely postured themselves as Elijah-like prophets.

They did this for a couple of reasons.

  1. The gospel that John and Jesus announced—the good news that God was about to judge and save Israel by establishing his kingdom over the nations—required, in accordance with the scriptures, an Elijah-like harbinger (cf. Malachi 4:1-5, Sirach 48:9-10). The day of the Lord was to be preceded by Elijah’s call to repentance.
  2. Like Elijah and Elisha, John and Jesus opposed Israel’s wayward leadership. With controversial deeds of power and unsavory associations, Jesus and John, like Elijah and Elisha, attempted to provoke Israel’s elite to jealousy and repentance: “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17, cf. Malachi 4:5-6).

Put more simply, by modeling themselves after Elijah and Elisha, John and Jesus were able to broadcast their eschatological message of repentance without words. If Elijah had really come back, time was running out. God was giving Israelites one last chance to make themselves worthy of the kingdom.

Jesus the prophet: a timeline

So, assuming that Jesus arose initially as this Elijah-like prophet, not as the Davidic king, what might his early ministry have looked like? Here’s a guess.

  • Having accepted John’s apocalyptic message about the kingdom, Jesus received John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
  • During and immediately after this baptism, Jesus was empowered and possessed by a divine spirit. At the urging of this spirit, Jesus became a prophet in the mold of John, a prophet like Elijah.
  • Either under or independent of John,¹ Jesus preached, worked wonders, and baptized (cf. John 3:22) in order to prepare Israel for the day of God’s wrath and restoration.
  • When John was imprisoned and killed, Jesus took up his master’s mantle, installing himself as John’s successor. Having become the Elisha to John’s Elijah, teaching what was effectively the same message, people began to confuse Jesus for John (Mark 6:14, 8:28).

The prophet inherits the kingdom

Along these lines, and for about two years, Jesus called Israel, particularly its leadership, to repentance as the prophet like Elisha.

Contrary to expectations, however, Jesus was unable to secure a significant following among his countrymen. By in large, the religious and civic shepherds of Israel opposed both John and Jesus, considering them not as prophets, but as demon-possessed sinners worthy of removal (Matthew 11:18).

As this opposition grew, it became clear to Jesus that there would be few in Israel left to inherit God’s kingdom when it came. Most of the people would surely be destroyed on account of their rebellion.

At least in their prophetic roles then, John and Jesus had failed.

Yet in light of these grim circumstances, as he approached the holy city for the last time, perhaps spurred on by eager pilgrims, Jesus laid claim to what he believed Israel’s leaders had forfeited: David’s throne.² Jesus and his followers would from now on be the rightful heirs of the kingdom (cf. Mark 12:1-12, Luke 22:29). They would be prophets-turned-regents, a remnant rewarded for their faithful suffering (cf. 1 Kings 19:14-18).

Jesus would thus not merely signal the arrival of the kingdom as prophet, he would preside over it as king.

triumphal entry giotto

1—Contrary to the claims of the early Christians, John is unlikely to have immediately (or indeed, at all) recognized Jesus as the Messiah, or even as his successor. Even after John was executed, very few of his followers ever became Jesus’ students (cf. John 1:35-36, Acts 19:1-7). In fact, John and his disciples apparently remained skeptical about Jesus (cf. Mark 2:18, Matthew 11:2-7).

2—While messianic expectations may have been thrust upon Jesus against his will, this seems less likely. Jesus apparently entered Jerusalem as a contender for the throne, and was executed and mocked as a royal pretender.

 

 

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