Jesus the Reformer

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
May 2014

Scholars have searched high and low for the Historical Jesus. They have examined parallels in Jewish culture, Roman culture, Greek culture, and strangely, even in Indian culture. The have imagined Jesus to have been a wandering Cynic philosopher, a magician, a healer, a prophet, a priest (of sorts) and a political messiah whose failed mission saw him thrown under the grindstone of history and crushed to powder. These same scholars have offered detailed explanations for their perspectives, some of which have been convincing and others of which have simply been ridiculous. From Morton Smith’s homosexual Jesus to Strauss’s failed messianic pretender to the folk who actually insist that Jesus never even really lived; all have fallen on the hard rocks of widespread rejection.

Since we’ve not reached a consensus (and such does not even appear on the horizon), perhaps it’s time to look in a different direction. Or better, in two directions at once: backward, to John the Baptist and forward to Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli. Of course I can already well imagine that hands are raised and brows are furrowed and scowls are forming at the mere suggestion. After all, Luther and Zwingli followed Jesus of Nazareth in historical sequence and surely cannot even mutatis mutandis be considered paradigmatic keys to interpreting his life.

Or, can they? Certainly this “thinking out loud” may simply end in a dead end- like much of the other suggestions already mentioned. But perhaps our failure even to consider another direction has been the one stumbling block to progress in the Quest.

So, first, a brief glance backwards towards John the Baptist. The ministry of John has rightly been seen as “reformatory” (though that word has, so far as I know, not been used). That is, John’s ministry was an attempt to “re-form” Israel by calling on her to repent and return to the faith of their father Abraham. The concise recapitulation of John’s work is perfectly summarized in Mark 1, where we read

The beginning of the good news concerning Jesus Christ, Son of God, according as it stands written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I send my messenger on a mission before your face who will make ready your road, a voice of One shouting out in the uninhabited place, Prepare the Lord’s road. Straight and level be constantly making His paths.1

John’s task is conceived and remembered as one of “preparation” and “calling to repentance”. That, in short, is how some early observers too conceived of Jesus’ mission.

An often missed clue is tucked away in the confession of Peter at Ceasarea (Mt 16), which most rightly take to be secondary to the historical Jesus and a statement of the Church post Easter. That is most certainly correct- yet at the very beginning of the confession story, when Jesus asks “who do people think the ‘Son of Man’ is, the disciples respond

Some, indeed, John the Baptizer, but others, Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. He says to them, But as for you, who do you say that I am? And answering, Simon Peter said, As for you, you are the Christ, the Son of God, the living God.2

The initial evaluation of Jesus by the crowd here reported, which I think is accurately reported by Matthew, is that he is “John the Baptist” or similar to John in that he calls to repentance and strives to re-form the genuine “people of God”. Famously, Matthew also tells us, in another place, that the mission of the disciples too, is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus does not wander outside of Israel and when approached by foreigners is, to put it politely, stand-offish. All of this demonstrates, I think, that Jesus of Nazareth, later Jesus the Christ, was concerned primarily with Israel and then “the whole wide world”. Like John, Jesus’ mission was the purification of the people of God. These people are consistently called to repentance and renewal. They must return to God, like the prodigal son, and thereby live in fellowship and obedience “in their Father’s house”.

Now, looking forward for a moment, perhaps we can see where Jesus “fits” in the scheme of things. The purpose of the Reformation (under the leadership of Zwingli and Luther) was not the birth of a new movement, but the purification of the Church. That, and that precisely, was what both John the Baptist and Jesus were attempting. That, too, was what Paul understood to be going on when he insists that the true people of God are those who have faith in Christ. Jesus the Reformer: that is the correct and most helpful analogy for interpreting the life of the Historical Jesus. Such an approach answers more questions than it raises and has the advantage of reading the text simply and straightforwardly- leaving aside exegetical and theological gymnastics to make the preconception of Jesus fit in the scholars mold.

Perhaps, then, the best analogy for understanding the work of Jesus is to see him through the lens of this model. The lenses we have previously used have not served us well and need to be re-ground. Let the grinding commence along with the correcting.


1 Wuest, K. S. (1961). The New Testament: an expanded translation (Mk 1:1–3). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

2 Wuest, K. S. (1961). The New Testament: an expanded translation (Mt 16:13–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Comments (7)

As a layman I feel like I'm out on a limb writing a comment here but I'm compelled to ask for clarification: How do you suggest that the concept of a reformer specifically differs from the concept of a prophet?

#1 - Travis - 05/01/2014 - 22:51

Good question Travis. Perhaps there is little to none, in the sense that the Prophets, in general, were attempting to reform the behavior of the people and so do Reformers. But Reformers also attempt to reform the religious structures themselves. For that reason Jesus can be seen as not simply a Prophet, calling people to live lives in accordance with God's will- but as a Reformer who wanted to change the structure of Judaism itself.

#2 - Jim - 05/01/2014 - 23:06

Thanks Jim. I have some clarifying questions to follow-on: When you say that a reformer attempts to reform the "religious structures themselves", are you suggesting that at a fundamental level they want to change the foundations of the religion? That the reform is not just a matter of correcting people's interpretation and application of the existing foundations?

You say that John's ministry was to "reform Israel by calling on her to repent and return to the faith of their father Abraham", so this kind of foundational reform would not seem to be your intent - but if that's the case then the distinction between the prophet and the reformer is unclear to me. Are you saying that the prophet's reform applies to the lay people but the reformer's reform applies also to the people holding religious authority? If so, I question whether it is fair to say that prior prophets didn't fit that mold (thinking of Ezekiel 34, for example).

#3 - Travis - 05/02/2014 - 18:06

Yes, you've left aside the gymnastics, but mainly because this piece is so short and shallow. In one paragraph, you claim John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul (Paul!) were reformers like those Europeans 1,500 years later who just happen to be your area of academic interest. And end by saying you're not fitting Jesus into your own mold! The lack of self-awareness is staggering.

#4 - Mark Erickson - 05/03/2014 - 04:18

I suppose that those who advocate a certain version of a religious tradition usually say that they are restoring the true original and their opponents that they are betraying it.
It must be true that a version of Hebrew Bible-based religion was advocated, originally in Palestine, by some people with whom others, now based in Rome and other centres, later claimed continuity. This version was universalist in that it claimed that the ancient promises were now for everyone, while a rival version thought that more work needed to be done on the basis of the special Jewish mission.
The supporters of the universalist version claimed that all (in some sense of all) the difference had been made by one great leader and teacher, Jesus. We need to question this claim. We have an evolution in religious thought. Great movements tend to claim great leaders/prophets/reformers. But they are always to some degree the work of many. Luther and Zwingli didn't do it all by themselves. If Jesus was a leader of a movement he was also a member of it and there were others like-minded.

#5 - Martin Hughes - 05/06/2014 - 19:41

The only connection between John and Martin Luther is that they were trying to reform religious organizations. However, they were reforming different religions to different ends.

This article lacks any coherent explanation for its thesis. I can agree that Jesus was in a way a reformer of his religious peers, but obviously the Christian religion doesn't see him that way. Martin Luther in particular would likely see Jesus in a much different light as well.

#6 - Richard Nash - 05/07/2014 - 19:40

I came upon your article while pursuing a thesis I have been developing as to the true lessons to be learned from John 8 and the story of the adulteress. After two years I am hoping you are still receiving comments. The described incident is far reaching if one were to use Jefferson’s oracle of reason.
The Christian perspective has always leaned heavily upon the admonition of Matthew 7:5 as to judging along with the perfunctory emphasis on forgiveness. Both are true but what has not been expanded upon is the depth of the Judaic reform aspect. It goes to Jesus writing before and after the statement.
Apparently it was the Sadducees and Pharisees who brought the woman to Jesus in the temple courtyard and the fact Jesus was surrounded by people is not insignificant. When confronted, Jesus first wrote something before making the pronouncement “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” then again wrote on the ground.
Jesus, in one brilliant exchange, did the following: 1) his first message was to the temple, the Sadducees and Pharisees who were men of letters. In keeping with the Tanakh which is, as you well know, split into three parts; the Torah, the Nevi’im or prophets and the Ketuvin…the writings, Jesus wrote the scriptural justification for the coming statement made to all who listened, 2) after the written justification and the statement, Jesus again wrote so as to seal both the justification and the statement as a writing having the weight of God’s word.
Jesus reformed Judaism in a way that pinned the temple to the wall, so to speak, and in silence they walked away knowing the writing was issued with authority enough to shake the temple to its foundation hence the severity of the threat posed by Jesus. The temple was challenged by someone who at the age of 13 knew the law with wisdom far beyond their own; the divine Jesus.
The people would have spread the word quickly and the new bar was an absolute; Leviticus and Deuteronomy would never again to have the same weight of Judaic Law; Judaism reformed to the core and the temple lost most of its power beyond ceremony.

Your thoughts?

#7 - Adler Pfingsten - 07/17/2016 - 03:42

Article Comments

Submitted by Bat-Ori on Wed, 10/25/2023 - 17:56


You don't go on to associate Jesus with the modern Reformation. If you take the idea of the Church as the body of Christ seriously, it's surely beyond human power to reform it. So presumably a high view of the Reformation would make Christ the one who reformed the Church?

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