The Historical and Geographical Setting of Jesus
At the time of Jesus, the land of Israel was under the rule of the Roman Empire, the largest empire in
the ancient world, which covered all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. To the Romans, Israel was known as the Roman province of Judea, which formed part of the eastern border of the empire. From the Roman point of view, Judea was a very troublesome province, with many uprisings and attempted rebellions against their rule.
The presence of the Roman Empire greatly facilitated the spread of the Gospel. The Romans boasted
about their military power, through which they had conquered many smaller kingdoms, adding their
territory to the empire. As the empire grew geographically, the only wars were on the frontiers, so the
main part of the empire was in peace. They were proud of this 'Pax Romana'. The Romans are also
remembered for their road-building. They built an extensive network of very straight, good quality
roads, by which it was possible to travel from one end of the empire to the other quickly and
relatively safely. Travelling was easier than it had ever had been before, and following the collapse of
Rome, it became much more difficult again.
The Herod family
The New Testament often refers to a king called Herod, and it is easy to assume that this always
refers to the same person. Instead, there was a whole family of Herods, who ruled over the nation of Israel, or smaller parts of it, during the first century.
Herod the Great was the founder of the Herod dynasty. He was appointed as 'King of the Jews' by the Romans. Actually he was not a true Jew, being half Jew and half Idumean (or Edomite, the descendants of Esau). Because of this, the Jewish religious leadership never accepted him as king. In an attempt to gain favour with the Jews, he financed the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, replacing the rather shabby temple built by Zerubbabel with a magnificent building, which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
It is almost impossible to work out the Herod family tree, as Herod the Great had ten wives, and three of these were called Mariamne! To make it worse, there was much intermarrying within the family, for example, uncles marrying their nieces. The life of Herod family was characterised by jealousy, slander, plotting, scheming, and execution of anyone who was suspected to be a threat to the king.
Herod the Great seemed to be very insecure as king. He even murdered three of his sons because he saw them as a threat. He was most upset when the wise men came and asked where the King of the Jews had been born, because there was no room for another king of the Jews. Therefore he ordered his soldiers to kill all the boys aged two and under in the town of Bethlehem.
When Herod died in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided between some of his remaining sons, Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip:
Herod Archelaus ruled over Judea. His rule was violent and brutal, so when Joseph and Mary were returning from Egypt, they were warned in a dream not to settle in Judea, but instead made their home in Nazareth in Galilee (Matt 2:22). Archelaus upset the Jews so much, that he was eventually removed by the Romans, and Judea was ruled by Roman governors, like Pontius Pilate, Felix and Festus.
Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee during Jesus's ministry. Jesus referred to him as 'that fox' (Lk 13:31-33), as he was known to be cunning and deceitful. It was this Herod who executed John the Baptist (Mk 6). Also, Jesus was sent for trial before Antipas by Pilate (Lk 23:7).
Herod Philip ruled over the predominately Gentile northern areas of Gaulanitis and Trachonitis. His rule was peaceful, and he was well-liked by his subjects.
Herod Agrippa I, was a grandson of Herod the Great, who ruled over Judea, and eventually all Israel. He attempted to gain favour with the Jews by having the apostle James beheaded, and Peter imprisoned (Acts 12:1). Agrippa's horrible death is described in Acts 12:20-33.
Herod Agrippa II was the son of Agrippa I, and was the last of the Herod dynasty. He lived in an incestuous relationship with his sister Bernice. Paul was brought for trial before Agrippa II (Acts 26), who was known for his knowledge of Jewish matters.
Jewish Religious Groups
Judaism in the first century was seriously divided between different Jewish religious groups. The prevailing atmosphere amongst the Jewish religion in the first century was legalism. This was particularly due to the influence of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were the ultimate legalists, believing that the way to please God was to keep the law in its entirety. Some believed that if all Israel kept the law for one day, then the Messiah would come. To avoid breaking the law of Moses, they had developed a large collection of oral traditions which formed 'a hedge round the law'. They believed that if they kept all these traditions they could not break the law. Unfortunately they kept the letter of the law, but often missed the spirit behind it. They tended to be very exclusive, refusing to mix with Gentiles, or any Jew who did not keep the law, particularly in case the food had not been tithed.
During his ministry, Jesus had frequent clashes with the Pharisees, particularly over the keeping of the Sabbath. They considered that when Jesus healed people he was working, so he was breaking the Sabbath, and therefore could not be the Messiah. The law of Moses said not to work on the Sabbath, so the Pharisees asked, "What is work?", and defined many detailed rules and regulations of what they could or could not do on the Sabbath. For example, they decided that they could only walk about 100 metres on a Sabbath, otherwise that would be considered as work. However, if they left some food in a house down the road, then that would count as their own house, so they could go there, then walk the 100 metres.
In spite of their opposition to Jesus, the Book of Acts describes how many Pharisees came to faith, including the apostle Paul.
The Sadducees were the rulers of the Jewish nation. They had the political power and the wealth, because they had compromised with the Romans. They only accepted the five books of Moses as scripture, and did not believe in a future resurrection. Because of this, they particularly opposed the apostles when they preached the resurrection of Jesus. There is no record of any Sadducees coming to faith in Jesus.
The scribes were the experts in the law, they were responsible for preserving and copying the Scriptures, and were consulted concerning the interpretation of the law.
The zealots were the terrorists or freedom fighters (depending on people's point of view) of the first century. They were violently opposed to Roman rule, and rejected the national Jewish leadership because they had compromised with the Romans. Jesus choose a zealot as one of his disciples.
In the first century, Israel was divided into several smaller political regions.
In the south, around the capital city of Jerusalem, was Judea. During the time of the Old Testament, Judea formed the southern kingdom after Israel was divided. This was the heartland of the Jewish nation, and had an almost exclusively Jewish population, who had very little contact with outsiders, apart from the thousands of Jews who visited Jerusalem to attend the Jewish festivals. Generally, the Jews living in Judea were far stricter in their keeping of the law.
Samaria lay in the centre of Israel, between Judea and Galilee. Samaria was originally part of the northern kingdom of Israel during the time of the divided kingdom in the Old Testament. The inhabitants of Samaria were half Jewish and half pagan, being descendants of the peoples brought in by the Assyrians following the collapse of Israel in 722 BC (2 Kg 17). They had their own religion, centred around their temple situated on Mt. Gerizim. Because of their ancestry, they were despised by the Jews. Strict Jews travelling from Judea to Galilee would never go through Samaria, but instead would cross the Jordan and travel up the eastern side. So, it was quite a shocking thing for Jesus to travel through Samaria and to talk with a Samaritan woman, particularly as she had a rather doubtful reputation! (Jn 4). Even worse, was the story Jesus told of the Samaritan who stopped and proved to be a good neighbour to the man lying beaten up on the side of the road, as in Jewish thinking there was no such thing as a 'Good' Samaritan (Lk 10).
The region of Galilee lay to the west of the Sea of Galilee. This was the location of most of Jesus's public ministry. Galilee was situated on several international trade routes, so the people were much more cosmopolitan than in Judea, and had far more contact with Gentiles. Because of this, the Jews were more liberal in their interpretation of the Old Testament law, and the people of Galilee were despised by the Jews from Judea.
The Decapolis ('Ten Cities')
This was a Greek speaking Gentile area to the east and south of the Sea of Galilee. It was in this region that Jesus expelled the Legion of demons from the man, and allowed them to go into the herd of pigs (Mk 5). No farmer would have kept pigs in Jewish territory.
The Birth of Jesus
The date of the first Christmas
It can come as a surprise to learn that Jesus was not born in the year zero. It appears that whoever it was who calculated the date of his birth was not quite correct. A date of around 6 or 7 BC is more likely. This is because we know from history that Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and he ordered all two year old baby boys to be killed, suggesting that Jesus would have been two years old when the wise men visited him.
Mary and Joseph
The account of the birth of Jesus in Luke's gospel is written from Mary's point of view. Mary was betrothed to Joseph and in the process of preparing for her marriage when the angel appeared to her announcing her pregnancy. From Jewish historical sources we learn that girls were normally betrothed to their future husbands at the age of 12½, which would indicate that Mary was younger than we often think. Joseph wanted to break the betrothal, because he thought Mary had been unfaithful to him. But he came to understand what had happened once an angel appeared to him. However, the general opinion around her would have been that Jesus was the result of an immoral relationship. Through the rest of her life Mary would have suffered the stigma of having had an illegitimate son. We should be impressed with Mary's willingness to be used by God in this unusual way. Later, Mary became a member of the church, and was probably with the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. In Matthew's Gospel, the birth story is written more from Joseph's point of view. He is not mentioned after the early period of Jesus's ministry, so it is assumed that he died quite young.
Jesus's childhood and education
In the Gospels, there is very little recorded of his childhood and early adult life. The impression we are given is that Jesus received a normal Jewish education in the local synagogue, and then went to work in Joseph's carpentry business in Nazareth. His neighbours would have seen him as a perfectly ordinary member of the community.
A fascinating question to ponder is, 'When did Jesus realise who he was?'. Jesus was born as a real human baby, with all the normal limitations of being a baby. However, Mary would have told him the strange circumstances of his birth, and the prophetic words spoken. He must have gradually realised through his childhood that he was the fulfilment of the prophecies in the Scriptures he studied. Clearly, by the age of twelve, he understood who his real father was (Lk 2).
The records in the gospels give us almost all that is known about the earthly life of Jesus, but
they do not give us his complete life history. Instead, we are given accounts of his birth, one incident
at the age of twelve, then a fuller description of his public ministry, with a major emphasis on his last
week leading up to the cross and resurrection. The gospel writers have been extremely selective,
recording the actions and teaching of Jesus which demonstrated the aspect of him that each writer
wished to portray to their original readers. The ultimate purpose of the Gospels is to bring people to
faith, so they are primarily evangelistic. It is challenging to read about how different people
responded to the claims of Jesus, then to think how we respond to him today: some rejected him,
some laughed at him, many followed him for selfish motives and left when the cost of discipleship
was too great, and a few became his faithful followers, willing to give up their lives for him.
In the New Testament, we have four gospels written by four different authors, each describing the
actions and teaching of Jesus. Each author wrote to a different group of people, describing the
particular aspects of Jesus that their readers needed to hear about. So when put together, the four gospels give us a complete picture of Jesus. Each of the gospels will be described separately below.
Summary of the ministry of Jesus
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke follow a similar geographical arrangement. They each begin with a period of public ministry in and around Galilee, based in Capernaum beginning with John the Baptist being arrested, and finishing with Peter's confession. This is followed with a progression from Galilee towards Jerusalem, eventually arriving in Jerusalem for his final week.
(Mt 4, Mk 1, Lk 4)
(Mt 16, Mk 8, Lk 9)
(Mt 21, Mk 11, Lk 19)
||Journey to Jerusalem
|Early public ministry
||Private training of disciples
|(only in John's Gospel)
|Preparation for suffering
The gospel of John follows a rather different geographical arrangement. One of John's themes is that Jesus travelled to Jerusalem to attend the Jewish festivals. So instead of only a single trip to Jerusalem, John describes several visits during his public ministry.
John the Baptist and The Early Judean Ministry
John the Baptist (Mt 3, Lk 3 , Jn 1)
Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, was followed by 400 years of silence. There
had been no word from God, and people said that the Spirit of the Lord was quenched. Into this
silence came the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist. He appeared in the
wilderness, preaching a message of repentance from sin, which was demonstrated by baptism in the
River Jordan. Many thought that he was the Messiah, but he announced that he was merely there to
prepare the way, as a fulfilment of Is 40:2. Malachi had predicted that before the Messiah came,
Elijah would re-appear (Mal 4:5). When Jesus was asked about this, he said that this prediction had
been fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist (Mt 17:10-13).
Early Judean ministry (Jn 1-3)
This phase of Jesus's ministry is only recorded in John's Gospel. At this time, John the
Baptist was still free. The end of his ministry overlapped the beginning of Jesus's ministry. It was
during this time that he pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn
1:29). Several of John's disciples left John and followed Jesus, including Andrew, and probably John
At the end of this phase of ministry, Jesus travelled north through Samaria, where he met the
woman at the well (Jn 4), and then entered Galilee.
The Great Galilean Ministry
Arrest and death of John the Baptist (Mk 6)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mark the start of Jesus's public ministry with his arrival in
Galilee, and with the arrest of John the Baptist. John was arrested because he spoke out against Herod
Antipas. Antipas had recently visited his half-brother Philip in Rome, (a different Philip from the
ruler of Gaulanitis and Trachonitis), who was married to Herodias. Antipas and Herodias began a
relationship, and she agreed to leave Philip, and marry Antipas if he divorced his current wife, the
daughter of the king of Nabatea. Following the tradition of Elijah and other Old Testament prophets,
John the Baptist spoke out against this marriage, as it was against the law of Moses to marry your
brother's wife. In response Antipas had John thrown into prison.
Later John was executed, after Herodias's daughter, Salome, pleased Antipas by performing a
seductive dance at one his feasts, and was offered anything she wanted as a reward. After consulting
her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a plate.
Preaching of the Kingdom of God
Both Matthew and Mark began their accounts of Jesus's public ministry with a summary of the message that Jesus proclaimed. This is how Mark describes it: "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'" (Mark 1:14-15)
Jesus did not merely preach about himself, but he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God. However, he challenged the popular understanding of the nature of that Kingdom.
During the last centuries BC, there was an ever-growing expectation that the time of the Messiah was near. Many different individuals rose up claiming to be the Messiah, gathered groups of followers, but their movements fizzled once the figure-head was removed by the authorities.
The popular understanding of the nature of the Messiah and his kingdom had been developed from the teaching of the Old Testament prophets. These predicted a glorious future for Israel when the Messiah came. So, the people expected the Messiah to come as a great military hero, riding his white horse, leading his armies into Jerusalem, where he would overthrow the Romans, and establish his kingdom, and from where he would rule the world. So, they were expecting a military messiah, who would establish a political kingdom, physically, in Israel. However, Jesus was not interested in political and military power, and resisted any attempt of making him king (Jn 6:15).
So, the message of the gospels is that the long-expected day of the Lord had come, that
through his ministry, death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God and defeated the
powers of darkness. However, this Kingdom is a spiritual kingdom which is entered by repentance
and faith. Although the gospels proclaim that the Kingdom has come, they also speak of the Kingdom
as still in the future. Today, we can live in the blessings of being in the Kingdom of God, but we are
still waiting for the Kingdom to be established in its fullness, which will be at the Second Coming of
Characteristics of Jesus's public ministry
Jesus ministry in Galilee had four major characteristics:
He became very popular with the crowds
Wherever he went, crowds of people followed. His popularity particularly grew through his miraculous acts of healing, feeding multitudes, and casting out demons. The crowd were impressed with the authority of his teaching, in contrast to the Jewish religious leaders. However Jesus was not merely interested in attracting large numbers of followers. Often people followed him for selfish motives, to get their diseases healed, or to get a free dinner, so Jesus often said things to put people off from following him. He wanted committed discipleship, not just many followers.
He began to teach the crowds using parables
There are two main types of parable in the gospels. The first are illustrations from every-day life which Jesus used to describe the true nature of the Kingdom of God. Well-known examples are the sower, the wheat and the tares, the hidden treasure in the field, and the seed growing to harvest. These show that the growth of the kingdom will start very small, and will gradually grow very big, and that good and evil will grow up together until the time comes for the final harvest, when Jesus returns. Others demonstrate that the growth of the kingdom depends on the receptivity of the hearts of people, or show the total commitment needed to enter the kingdom by faith. Because of the preconceptions they had about the nature of the kingdom, it is likely that most people listening did not (or would not) understand what he said. So the mystery of the parables was part of the greater mystery of the Kingdom.
Growing opposition from the religious leaders, particularly the Pharisees
Being so zealous for the Jewish laws and their oral traditions, the Pharisees could not accept that Jesus was truly from God, as in their eyes, he kept breaking the law, especially the Sabbath regulations.
It was against these people that Jesus used the second type of parable. These are very clever stories with a nasty twist in them, which would expose the hard hearts of his audience. The listeners would emotionally identify with a certain character in the story, and then be caught out by the punch line, which would show them that rather than being the good-guy of the story, they are actually behaving like the bad-guy. Examples of these are the 'Prodigal Son', and the 'Good Samaritan'.
He called and began to train the disciples
Early in his ministry, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets and follow him. Later, following a whole night of prayer, he selected twelve disciples, who would be with him, and be sent out to proclaim and demonstrate the message of the Kingdom.
Peter's confession (Mt 16, Mk 8, Lk 9)
At the end of his public ministry in and around Galilee, Jesus led his disciples north towards Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them some questions. First he asked, "Who do people say I am?", and they replied by giving the popular understanding of who Jesus was. Some thought he was John the Baptist raised from the dead, others thought Elijah, some thought he was one of the prophets. Then he asked, "Who do you say I am?", and Peter replied "You are the Christ".
Full marks (so far) for Peter. But Jesus followed this by beginning to predict his rejection, suffering and death in Jerusalem. Up to this point in his ministry, he had made no mention of this, so they would have been greatly surprised and shocked. Peter had the same misunderstanding of the nature of the Messiah as the rest of the population did, so he could not accept that God's chosen Messiah will die, as Messiahs do not die, and particularly do not die on a cross, where they would come under the curse of God (Deut 21:23). Peter therefore rebuked Jesus. It is not recorded what he said, but we can speculate that he probably told Jesus that he had completely the wrong idea. In reply, Jesus strongly rebuked Peter, saying, "Get behind me, Satan!". Peter had half the right answer, that Jesus was the Messiah, but the question was what sort of Messiah, and how would be bring in his kingdom?
The way to Jerusalem
The third major section of Jesus's ministry was set on a journey from Galilee, down the east side of the Jordan River, to Jerusalem. In Luke's Gospel, this section is particularly emphasised, where it lasts for 10 chapters, beginning with Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem (9:51).
Characteristics of the travel narrative:
Jesus predicted his suffering
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record how Jesus prepared his disciples for what would happen when they arrived in Jerusalem through several important predictions that he would be betrayed, rejected, tried before the rulers, be condemned to die, but would rise again. However, this suffering was not only for Jesus, but also for those who follow him.
After the suffering comes glory
Following Peter's confession comes the Transfiguration, when the disciples were given a preview of Jesus in his glory, so there is a double theme of suffering preceding glory, for both Jesus and those who would follow him.
Jesus concentrated on training the disciples
With his main public ministry over, Jesus concentrated on training the disciples, preparing them to become the leaders of the church, by teaching them the true nature of the kingdom of God, and how to live in it, and showing them the conditions of true discipleship.
The opposition from religious leaders intensified
This opposition began during his ministry in Galilee, but gradually grew until it climaxed when he arrived in Jerusalem.
The Last Week: Trials, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension
The Triumphal Entry
Finally Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, known as his Triumphal Entry, when most people welcomed him merely as one of the many faithful visitors to the Passover feast in Jerusalem, waving palm branches, and singing the Passover Psalm, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord" (Ps 118:26). However, the gospel writers saw him as the king who came in humility riding on a donkey (fulfilling Zech 9:9).
Final conflicts with the religious leaders
After entering the city, Jesus went into the temple and looked around, seeing the money changers in the Court of the Gentiles. He came back the next day and taking a whip, he cleared them out of the court, saying that this was a house of prayer for the nations, but they had made it in to a den of robbers. He was most upset because they had filled the Court with their tables, making it impossible for the Gentiles to come and hear the Word of God, and the worship of the One True God.
During this week, much of the action took place in the temple, where there were the final conflicts with the religious leaders, who were determined to catch him out, and therefore have an excuse to arrest him, but were thwarted by his popularity with the crowds. Jesus publicly condemned the hypocrisy of these leaders, and through powerful parables, exposed their blindness to what God was doing (Mt 21-23). Because of the hardness of the religious leaders in rejecting their Messiah, Jesus wept over Jerusalem and predicted judgement on it (Mt 23:34-36, Lk 19:41-44).
The Olivet Discourse (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21)
As he was leaving the temple with his disciples, he declared that, "not one stone will be left
upon another", that the temple will be destroyed. The disciples asked him privately when this will
happen, and what sign will precede it, probably thinking that this will be connected with the end of
the age and the final judgement. In his answer, Jesus told them that when they saw the sign of the
temple being desecrated, as it was during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, as Daniel had predicted,
they should run away from the city as quickly as possible. He also declared that this would take place
within the lifetime of the current generation (Mt 24:34). The temple was eventually destroyed by the
Romans, after it had been desecrated by Jewish zealots in AD 70, within 40 years of Jesus predicting it.
About his coming and the end of the age, Jesus gave no time and no signs, but merely called
the disciples (and us) to be ready and awake, ready to meet him. He warned them not to be led astray
by people claiming to be the Messiah, and that they should not fear wars and rumours of wars,
because those were merely signs of the beginning, not of the end. However the Gospel must first be
preached to all nations, and he warned his disciples that they will be persecuted, and that they need to
endure to the end.
The Last Supper (Mt 26, Mk 14, Lk 22)
In the NT, Jesus was seen as the fulfilment of the Passover, the day when the Jews remembered the great act of God when he delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. His death and resurrection brought a new and greater act of deliverance from slavery, this time from sin and death. Before his death, Jesus wanted to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. This took place in the Upper Room, probably in the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. During that meal Jesus took the bread, and told his disciples to eat it, as it represented his body, and to drink the wine, which represented his shed blood, the blood of the New Covenant, thus instituting the celebration of communion, through which we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26)
The last teaching in the Upper Room (John 14-17)
In his gospel, John records the lengthy discourse when Jesus spoke privately with his disciples, preparing them for his departure, calling them to abide in him as branches on the vine, promising them the coming of the Holy Spirit as the Helper, and praying for them.
The betrayal and arrest
The religious authorities were determined to trap Jesus, and arrest him. In spite of many
attempts, there were unable to do this, because of his popularity with the crowds in the temple. So
they needed a quiet place where they could arrest him. To help them, Judas said he was willing to
betray Jesus and show them his favourite place for peace and quiet. This was the Garden of
Jesus and the disciples left the Upper Room for the Garden of Gethsemane, where Judas
knew he could find them. It was there he betrayed Jesus with a kiss, and he was taken away by the
temple guards, and all the disciples fled, leaving him completely alone, without any support.
The unjust trials
The Jewish legal system was designed as a fair system of justice, believing people to be
innocent until proved guilty. However, in their determination to kill Jesus, the religious leaders broke
most of their own rules.
Jesus was arrested without any charge made against him (Lk 22:54)
He was interrogated to discover the charge against him (Mk 15:60)
It was illegal to consider a capital charge on a feast day, but Jesus was tried on the day of the
Passover (Jn 18:28).
It was illegal to make judgement at night, but Jesus was tried by the Jewish Sanhedrin several hours past midnight.
It was illegal to hold a court session away from the temple precincts, but Jesus was tried in the high priest's house (Lk 22:54).
The high priest was supposed to act as an unbiased judge, but instead took the role as prosecutor and led the charge against Jesus (Mk 14:61)
There had to be a 24-hour delay between the passing of the death sentence and bringing the condemned person before the Romans. Jesus was condemned after midnight and brought before Pilate before dawn (Mk 15:1).
The cross and resurrection
When Jesus died, all the hopes of the disciples died with him. In the gospels there is no hint
that they expected any more. Their leader was dead, and that was the end. If they had really believed
Jesus's predictions of his death and resurrection, they would have been waiting on Easter Sunday
morning outside the tomb. Instead, we see them hiding away, fearful, and in unbelief. One of the
characteristics of the Bible is its faithful recording of all the failings of the great leaders.