A WITNESS IN THE WORLD
“The church as the Body of Christ and an expression of His Kingdom is called to separate itself from the world and yet be a witness in the world as light and seek to effct positive changes and prevent social and moral decay (as salt).”
THERE were several organised groups within the Jewish community at the time of Jesus. Two such groups, the Pharisees and the Essenes, probably had common roots in the Maccabean revolt in the second century BC (when Jewish patriots rebelled against their Seleucid colonis-ers, fought a war of independence and achieved independence for a century).
The Seleucid ruler of that time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, forbade the observance of the Mosaic Law and desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by bringing in an idol. This was all too much for many pious Jews, and some priests led in a rebellion that overthrew the Seleucids.
There were two major dimensions in this revolt – a political one and a religious one. When those who pushed further for political power dominated the movement, the “pious ones” (Hasidim) separated from them. Out of this movement of piety that focused on the strict observance of the Law came the Pharisees and Essenes. They eventually took diﬀerent paths – one became a party, and the other a sect.
The name Essene is possibly derived from the term Hasidim. The Essenes were a group that decided that society was beyond repair or redemption and so corrupted that the best option was to withdraw from decaying society. The Essenes became sectarian and withdrew into isolated communities that had strict rules for membership and discipline. One such community was what has come to be known as the Qumran community, made famous by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.
Though they had been marginalised in the life of Israel and in the temple, the Essenes awaited God to intervene and restore them as the true priests and community who would lead in the temple worship. Their basic stance was one of resignation to current circumstances, separation and isolation and the awaiting of God’s intervention.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were very much involved in social life. They too were concerned with the strict observance of the Mosaic Law and they saw themselves as morally separate and pure compared to the other members of society. But they also sought to influence society by reforming it according to their views. In this they had competitors like the Sadducees who controlled the temple priesthood and the aristocracy. Because of this the Pharisees sought to bring about change through political means and influ-ence. They operated like a party in society, seeking to change it through social and political means.
THE GOSPELS mention quite a bit about the Pharisees. Jesus had many encounters with them – both positive (such as the one with Nicodemus, and later Saul in Acts), and negative (which was the usual case). Jesus at times seemed to have commended the Pharisees for their standards in piety and morality.
In fact, He started where they were and took things beyond, showing their inadequacies. But His greatest criticism against them was their hypocrisy and spiritual blindness. They did not live up to their own standards and their interpre-tation of the Law was seriously distorted.
There is no direct reference in the Bible to the Qumran community or the Essenes, though it is very likely that Jesus knew about them. Scholars have pointed out that though there may seem to be some similarities between the teachings of the Essenes and that of Christ and the early Christian community because of their common Jewish roots, these are only surface similarities. On deeper examina-tion, there are big diﬀerences between the Essenes and the early Christians and their Lord. It is clear that Jesus rejected the ways of the Essenes as well as that of the Pharisees.
Jesus did not endorse or follow either the way of the sect or the way of the party. He showed a diﬀerent way when He talked about His Kingdom. He declared that His Kingdom is not of this world, that it is in the hearts of people and among believers (Lk. 17:21), and that it is coming in future glory to set things right.
This is something that we as Christians and the church need to think about more deeply. Historically we have seen parts of the church adopt the ways of the sect or the party. At times, Christians had decided to gather in a pious huddle, separating themselves from the world. Better to save ourselves and let the world go to hell anyway.
On the other hand, the church has also operated at times in a Christendom of political power, seeking to take over the world. Either way is not the way of Christ. Our Lord’s way is the Kingdom way, where the church is called to display the Kingdom in its faithfulness to its Lord, purity and engagement in the world as salt and light.
This means we are to be in the world and yet not of the world (Jn. 17:15-16). The sect gets itself out of the world. e party becomes part of the world, though it may begin with noble intentions. The church as the Body of Christ and an expression of His Kingdom is called to separate itself from the world and yet be a witness in the world as light and seek to eﬀect positive changes and prevent social and moral decay (as salt). But we must never take a triumphalistic political road.
Otherwise there is no need to wait for the return of Christ.
We are an eschatological people who look to the future coming of Christ and His Kingdom. The Bible does not paint a rosy picture of how history will unfold. There will be spiritual and moral decline. is must not make us take the path of the sect and withdraw from the world. Neither must we adopt the ways of the party and think that we can take over the world. Rather, we must continue as the Kingdom-church that must continue to be in the hands of Jesus, who is preparing His Kingdom in His own unique way.