Understanding the NT From the OT Part 4 – Of Bob Marley and Jesus’ Resurrection

Bob Marley & The Wailers at the BBC in London
Bob Marley & The Wailers at the BBC in London

This will be my last on the series “Understanding the NT from the OT” and I hope you’ve enjoyed and wrestled with the issues I’ve shared. This post is dedicated to Ghana Posts, who failed to deliver my hard copy version of “The Resurrection of the Son of God”, forcing me to buy a Kindle version. I hope they can “resurrect” my package, wherever it has ended up.


My friends on Facebook who are a bit more attentive will know by now that I’m a fan of Bob Marley’s music, and one of his songs which fascinates me is “Get Up, Stand Up” which he did with The Wailers. Bob Marley starts the first and second verses off this way.

Preacher man don’t tell me, Heaven is under the earth, I know you don’t know, what life is really worth …”

Most people think, great god will come from the skies, take away everything, and make everybody feel high …”

Peter Tosh takes the baton over in the last one, and says

We sick and tired of your ism-skism game, dyin’ n’ goin’ to heaven in-a-Jesus name Lord, We know when we understand, almighty god is a living man …”

Now you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that these guys are being critical of dominant Christianity and our pie-in-the-sky mentality regarding not caring about what goes on down here, in the hope of something nice and wonderful laid out for us in heaven. But what if Christianity had something to say regarding what goes on on this earth – regarding the injustice, wickedness, hatred, hypocrisy and war that rages on this earth till this day? Maybe we can answer some (if not all) of brother Marley’s vexations if we pay a bit more attention to the history and beliefs that attended the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, as well as the early Christians interpretation of what Jesus resurrection actually meant. I’ll do this with the help of “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by NT Wright, one of the best books recommended by Christian apologists on the resurrection of Jesus. You can also view a summary of Christian apologist William Lane Craig defending Jesus’s bodily resurrection here, which makes the same points as this book.

The Greco-Roman Influence

The Old (and New) Testament being a document focused on the lives of the people of Israel before, during and after the Babylonian exile, doesn’t give too much detail about what else was going on around the world at the time. But there is no doubt that whatever else was going on around them always had an impact, and so we ignore this impact to our own detriment.

The Greek king, Alexander the Great had done a great job of conquering a very large part of the earth, stretching from modern day Europe to modern day southern Asia into one large Greek empire. However almost immediately after his death, war between his generals meant the generals split the empire into 3 parts – the Ptolemaic, the Seleucid and the Pergamon empires. So, the returnees and inhabitants of Judah found themselves under the rule of the Seleucids, and that alone lead to some significant developments. Later this kingdom was defeated by Rome, so again Judah had new masters, and therefore new cultural influences. Just as today the British empire has bequeathed us Africans with certain legacies (e.g. our obsession to still require a white wedding in addition to our own African ceremonies for example), so did Greek and Roman culture have an influence on the world at the time, and certainly beliefs about life after death were not left out.

Life After Death – The Greco-Roman Perspective

To the everyday Greek person, the venerated Greek writer Homer’s books were their equivalent of the Old Testament. Writer of books like Illiad and Odyssey, which includes stories about the Tojan war and Achilles etc, his writing was the standard reading for all Greek people (and overtime others who were conquered by the Greeks).

So the Greeks believed (from Homer) that every dead person went to Hades, which was ruled by the god of that same name and his wife Persephone. In Hades everyone lived a miserable life – there really wasn’t much to look up to. Some few people seemed to have received a greater punishment than others, but Hades was truly a sad and gloomy place where every dead person finally lives after death. Apparently one needs to cross a river to get to Hades, so when burying people sometimes coins or some other “essentials” were placed in the coffin for them to pay the fare. All of this meant that to the Greek then, one must gain all the glory that one can on this earth, because there’s nothing to look up to after this life one had. This sounds a lot like some modern worldviews we know of.

Along came Plato, who developed a very respectable reputation as a philosopher (and Greeks LOVED philosophy). He challenged Homer’s view that there was nothing good to look forward to after death, by redefining what Hades was like. Hades was split between Isle of the Blessed – where good people who had done their duty to the kingdom well lived a blissful life – and Tartarus – an abyss where all the evil people will receive their punishment. Plato wanted to create a sort of reason why people should live a good life instead of just pursuing personal glory (and riches) alone. Plato and the philosophers who came after him also introduced the idea of human souls already existing before time, and being sent into a temporary body to prove itself worthy so that it may receive the blessing of being counted amongst those who would be in the Isle of the Blessed. To Platonism then, in contrast to Homer, life on earth wasn’t all that there was. It was just a temporary thing along with the body in which you lived, and that the real thing was to be judged to have lived in the body one was given well so that after death one may be rewarded – even possibly to be declared a “god” to join the father of the gods, Zeus (or Jupiter, as the Romans called him). The writings of Plato (and other philosophers after him) became the “New Testament” to the Greek people. The Romans were also influenced by these thoughts from their former conquerors, and so held to much the same beliefs with some slight modifications here and there. It is interesting to note the similarities between this new understanding and some strands of Christianity.

The possibility mentioned above of some people being made “gods” was the basis for the practice of “apotheosis” – where some of the dead Roman kings were declared gods, and therefore their successors to be “sons of god”. It is obvious why Jesus’s claim to be “son of God” ruffled both Jews (he cannot be son of God if he was killed by their number one enemy – Rome) and Gentiles (Act 7:7 – “… and they act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus”) .

You will note one clear thing – none of them say anything about coming back to this earth. The Greco-Roman world didn’t accept the notion of dead people coming back to life to live normally on this earth as possible. The dead may visit you in a vision or dream. They may even appear as ghosts, or spirits or angels of a sorts to give a message. They had a word for it “anastasis” aka resurrection, but they didn’t believe it possible. To them, death was the end, and any life thereafter was life lived in either the Isle of the Blessed or Tartarus. Period.

Life After “Life After Death” – The Jewish Perspective

The Jews however had a very different idea of death, which they were the only ones who held to in their world – that YHWH will forgive the sins of his people Israel (Dan 9, Isaiah 40:1-11; Jer 31:31-34;Ezek 36:22-32), judge the world and resurrect the righteous dead to receive their rewards, and the unrighteous dead to be condemned. In that judgment, YHWH will also restore the fortunes of Israel, renew his covenant with them “by the Spirit”, and cleanse and transform this world, bring his heaven down to this earth – typically described with the words “new creation” or “new heaven and new earth”. The most explicit biblical support for the ideas of resurrection of the dead come from Daniel 12:2-3 and Isaiah 26:19.

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever”(Dan 12:2-3).

But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise – let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy – your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”(Is 26:19).

Although these passages are specific about the resurrection event itself, they cannot be divorced from the issues that are being discussed in the chapters as a whole – YHWH’s restoration of the fortunes of his special nation, Israel. Resurrection went with other judgment activities of YHWH, vindicating Israel’s claim to be his special people.

This belief in resurrection (life after “life after death”) lead to some interesting practices being adopted by Jews regarding burials. David Daube in his book “The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism”, catalogs how Pharisees introduced new laws regarding executing people accused of capital offenses.

Stoning was moderated; burning was to be done by forcing liquid down the throat; strangling was by a particular method; all was in aid of leaving the bone structure intact. The body was important … Cremation was avoided for the same reason.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, NT Wright referring to David Daube’s work.)

However, there were those who challenged this belief in bodily “life after life after death”, and this school of thought is reflected by the Sadducees. They claimed that the Torah (the books of Moses) had nothing to say on the subject, and since that was more authoritative than the prophets, they didn’t believe in it. This was the basis for the challenge of the Sadducees to Jesus in Mk 12:18-27 that in the resurrection, who will be the husband of a woman who had been forced to marry all seven brothers after each of them died. They wanted to trap Jesus and make the resurrection an absurd belief. Jesus skillfully saw through the trap, and his answer reinforced the belief in resurrection, much to their annoyance.

One question that arose then was what happens between when one is dead and when YHWH returns to restore Israel’s fortunes? Was there life after death? Some Jews said the dead were just dead. Others said the spirits of the dead were with other righteous dead – this is typically explained with the phrase “gathered to his people” (Gen 49:29 of Jacob’s death), “slept with his ancestors” (1 Ki 2:10 of David) etc. Because it was believed that YHWH’s love extended even after death to those he loved, it was surmised then that the righteous dead were with him in his realm – heaven. This is where early Christianity obtains it’s belief that when we die, we go to heaven as expatiated by the former Pharisee, Paul the apostle – “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23).

And So?

It is obvious then that all Jews were awaiting a redemptive work of YHWH which will bring ALL the righteous back to life. Aka the righteous dead will come back to life. Not one and not some, but all the righteous.

This is in sure contradiction to the conviction that the Greco-Roman world around them only looked forward to life after death, and returning back into this earth in a full bodily form was NOT expected. Aka, the dead stayed dead. If there is a life after death, it is in the land of the dead, not the living.

Therefore Jesus defeating death by resurrecting was a huge spanner in the works for both Jew and Gentile. To his disciples, his resurrection vindicated him in all that he had said and done. After all many Messiahs had come before him and had all died at the hands of the enemy. A Messiah who dies at the hands of his enemies would not have been accepted even by his own disciples (no wonder they scattered after his death), but having resurrected meant that YHWH had vindicated this one to be the true Messiah. It is the resurrection of Jesus that confirmed him to truly be the son of God, and the saviour of the world. If Jesus had stayed dead in the tomb, THERE WILL BE NO CHRISTIANITY, his death will have no salvation effect. This point cannot be overstated – the center of the gospel is the resurrection of the son of God, which then makes sense of his death on the cross.

Paying much more attention now, I’m beginning to see how much Paul places an emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection.

But God raised him from the deadWe tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (Ac 13:30-33)

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17: 30-31)

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”(Rom 1:1-4)

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)

And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor 15:14).

There are so many more places where Paul emphasizes the monumental importance of the resurrection of Jesus, I can’t quote them all here. Suffice it to say that what apotheosis couldn’t do for the Roman emperor, YHWH had done for Jesus. That is why the early Christians called him Lord – he has been “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). Not only had his resurrection shown him to be the true son of God, but it made his death meaningful as a means of defeating the last great enemy of God’s purposes – death and its sting, sin (1 Cor 15:54).

The hope of our resurrection with Christ then becomes a central piece of all the writers of the NT, and when Paul and Peter speaks of our inheritance, they are referring to it.

What About Bob Marley?

The one thing that the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah meant for the life of those who believed in it was that YHWH had launched his project of new creation now. It’s fullness will indeed be revealed when he returns to consummate the work, but it already began through Jesus own activity of resurrection. Those who believed in the resurrection then were not just a people who had received and lived a newness of life, they also became people who are participating with God in his work of new creation. Therefore they become a people who are not only satisfied with themselves – they become workers of good, seekers of justice and self-sacrificial lambs even to the death. Death becomes to them indeed an enemy, but an enemy that has been defeated already by Jesus the Messiah, and therefore something they are not afraid of in pursuit of good deeds and justice. In the same way that the hope of resurrection helped the sons of Maccabee stand against their enemies and be willing to die for the cause of God’s redemption of Israel (read 2 Maccabees), resurrection was a hope for early Christians to not be afraid to work for justice and pursue good works which God had prepared beforehand for us (Eph 2:10) even at the pain of death – because Jesus the Messiah had been resurrected, and therefore they will too.

The above seems to be quite different from the “gospel” that our brother Bob Marley (and many others who are critical of Christianity) have heard. To them, Christianity has painted the picture of “docile” men who do not care about what happens on this earth, because “this world is not their home” as Jimmy Reeves put it. Over the course of history, Christianity has focused more on life after death, to the neglect of life after “life after death”. Matters are made worse by the dispensationalists, who day in day out are busy frightening us of being left behind in the rapture so they go to a better place and leave this world to rot, not knowing how close to Platonism they are. This has benefited the political elite of today and times past (just as it benefited the Sadduccees, the political elite of their time who also didn’t believe in resurrection) as Christians have left the work of doing good and seeking justice to governments. We have forgotten that the church is a place where new creation is displayed, where Jesus is good news to the poor, the hopeless and the downtrodden (Lk 4:16-19) so that the governments may see that indeed there is a new King, and that king is capable of doing human leadership and government much better than the fallen systems of this world can. If we were busy pursing this task of new creation, then when we speak of a coming judgment, it will really put some trepidation in the hearts of the political elite. But as it stands, resurrection doesn’t seem central to us, therefore Jesus is only seen as some private belief by some group of people to enable them navigate this world so they can go to heaven, whiles the politicians can go about raping and sacking this “wretched” earth which God already plans for destruction anyways.

So can we blame Peter Tosh for being “sick and tired of your ism-skism game, dyin’ n’ goin’ to heaven in-a-Jesus name Lord”? Not really in my view, because that has been the Christian message for some centuries now, a message which Christian minds are only now willing to challenge.

The truth though is that no major world religion believes that the dead will come back to live on this earth again except Judaism and its younger brother, Christianity. The best they all do is talk about life after death. That means resurrection of the righteous is our birthright – its the one thing that makes Christianity stand or fall because it’s what makes Jesus life AND death sensible. Let’s not sell our birthright for a mere life after death. There is life after life after death. Jesus the Messiah has indeed shown the way.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamor – Our lamb has conquered, him let us follow.

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Understanding the NT From the OT Part 2 – A Look at the Jewish Symbols

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

The 3 main beliefs i.e. “creational monotheism”, “election” and “eschatology” as discussed in Part 1, led to certain symbolic activities and attachments. In the New Testament, these symbols are renewed and reapplied in Jesus Christ and his church, both in the Gospels and in the epistles. Today, we’ll look at some of these symbols and their exposition in the New Testament.

The Land

It is not very obvious from the NT how important the people of Yisrael took their nation and the land on which it was situated, but it’s impact cannot be underestimated. The land which formerly belonged to Canaan was now theirs through God’s fulfillment of his promises to their Fathers. The blessings that God intended to give them (see Deut 28) was to be experienced in and through that land. In addition, it was the land from which YHWH intended to rule the rest of the world. Of course that meant that Jerusalem would be the administrative center of God’s world wide rule in the age to come aka “the kingdom of God”, but YHWH was expected to cleanse the whole nation to make it fit to be a place to rule from. This hope in the blessedness of the land as a means of drawing the nations’ attention as well is expressed in many of the Psalms and Prophets, such as Ps 67

May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. The land yield it’s harvest; God our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him” (Ps 67:5-6).

We see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) had given his own people (election) the land of Canaan as he promised to their father to be their place of blessing. The 3rd belief (eschatology) is also at work here, but we’ll talk more about that in Part 3.

The Temple

The NT undoubtedly has many references to the temple and rightly so, for it is a central symbol of Jewish nationality. The land as a symbol is further strengthened by fact of the temple of Jerusalem being situated in that Land. The temple was the place where YHWH dwelled, and where he poured his mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration on his people if and when they had sinned. Of cleansing from sin, NT scholar NT Wright has this to say in his book whose title is incidentally also abbreviated NTPG

Defilement, of course, was not a matter of individual piety alone, but of communal life; uncleanness … meant disassociation from the people of the covenant god.” (New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

More critically he goes on to say

But the Temple was not simply the ‘religious’ center of Yisrael … [it] combined in itself the functions of religion, national figurehead and government. The high priest, who was in charge of the temple, was as important a political figure as he was a religious one. When we study the city-plan of ancient Jerusalem, the significance of the Temple stands out at once, since it occupies a phenomenally large proportion (about 25%) of the entire city. Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there … [it was more] like a temple with a small city round it”.(New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

Note that Solomon’s temple was built based on YHWH’s own design mediated to men, and YHWH’s glory had descended to fill it when the building was consecrated. All this therefore strengthened Yisrael’s belief that YHWH truly dwelt there in the Holy of Holies, between the 2 cherubim that stood on top of the ark of the covenant placed in there.

It was built on a mountain called Zion and hence the Psalms speak of God ruling from Zion, God dwelling in Zion etc. Just like we today say “The White House has decided to …” to refer to decisions taken by the US government and therefore the nation of USA , so was “Zion” a codeword not just for the Temple that sat on the mountain, but the nation Yisrael and it’s leadership. The Psalms are therefore littered with such “zionic” references – Ps 48;15:1-2; 24:3-5; 76; 96:7-9; 97:6-9; 99:1-2.

Again we see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) chooses to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem and not any other temple (election). We’ll look at the third belief that the temple evokes later.

The Law

Torah (The Law) was the temple’s inseparable partner. It was the constitution of the people of Yisrael, but not only did it cover just their political lives as modern constitutions are wont to do, it covered their religious and economic lives. The Torah and its observance necessarily led to Temple activities (mostly sacrifices), and also lead to regulations on the Land (fallow periods, return of land to owners during Jubilee, right to inherit land, leaving a portion of food grown on the land for the poor etc.) As I mentioned in the previous post, keeping the 613 laws of the Torah was not just a question of “personal/individual relationship with God” or “personal righteousness to go to heaven”. The Torah dictated how the people were to live together on that Land (and beyond) and to relate to YHWH (through the temple) so that God’s blessings might be on the nation. . And as a result, it was meant and targeted at a very specific people – the people of Yisrael. Therefore Torah observance was not just a personal religious choice, it was a choice that made even a Gentile now become a Jew (not just a follower of a religion called “Judaism”). Obeying the Torah then, was an issue of national identity.

To the modern Christian to whom separation between nationality and religion is a moot point, it has been very difficult to grasp this role of the Torah. This is further aggravated by how Protestant Christianity has unfortunately painted a warped picture of the Torah around only personal sinfulness and “justification”, leaving out its corporate dimensions.

Here again, we see how monotheism and election are at work through the Torah. The eschatology angle will be addressed later.

The Impact of the Babylonian Exile

The attachment to these symbols was dramatically changed when Babylon descended on Judah and carried off the people into exile. The nation seemed to have forgotten that YHWH’s presence with them depended on their faithful observance of the Torah, and drifted off after their own desires and after other gods. The prophets began calling them to attention, from Elijah, to Elisha, to Jeremiah, without much long term success. Their confidence was in their election as a special people of YHWH, and they felt secure in the fact of YHWH dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH actually sends Jeremiah to the Temple, to declare it’s destruction (along with the nation as well).

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all of you people of Judah who come to these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Yisrael, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly … then I will let you live in this place … Will you steal and murder … burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house … and say ‘We are safe’?’” (Jer 7:1-11).

Of course, the rest as they say, is history. Babylon led by Nebuchadnezer descended on them, destroyed the temple and the city, and carried off the people of Judah to Babylon where they lived in captivity for about 70 years. The events of the book of Daniel reflect this period. This event seriously challenged their faith and understanding of YHWH’s relationship with them and raised a lot of questions. Was YHWH dead? If not, why had he abandoned his temple for it to be destroyed by his enemies? Was it because they had sinned? What must they do to make YHWH look favorably on them again? If YHWH was going to restore them as mentioned in Deut 30, what form and shape should will this restoration take? The books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, need to be read with this background of exile and restoration in our minds then.

To cope with the loss of 2 central symbols (Land and Temple), the whole focus of Jewish identity shifted to Torah observation. Not only was observing the Torah a mark of Jewish identity as discussed above, it also became a means by which salvation will come to them from the grips of their captors. These are the beginnings of the usage of the words we so love today – “salvation” and “forgiveness of sins”. To the Jew therefore, not only was “forgiveness of sins” about their personal sins, but it was about God forgiving his nation and returning to look favorably upon them. Compare the prayer of Daniel 9 with Deuteronomy 28-30, and the picture is clear what he meant in his prayer, pleading for “forgiveness of sins” for his people.

In consonance with this urge toward greater Torah observation as a means of salvation, groups of Jews in exile began forming who took the observance of Torah quite seriously, and debated how this could be done, especially in exile where they had lost the 2 other symbols. This was the beginning of the group called “the Pharisees”, much misunderstood and maligned by modern Christianity. As is natural even in Christianity, too much emphasis on obeying a set of laws always leads to legalism of sorts, but for Pharisaim, it wasn’t only about personal righteousness but also about corporate righteousness – in order for YHWH to look favorably on his elect people. In addition, being in exile in another land meant they were faced with new challenges that they hadn’t faced before when they were in their own land. The debates (mostly by Pharisees) as to what to do with these difficulties lead to the accumulation gradually of an oral law being added to the written law, which today are referred to as the Mishnah and the Talmud. This oral law is what Jesus referred to as “the traditions of men”, since they sometimes overrode what the Torah, commanded by YHWH had said on some issues.

Regarding how YHWH could abandon his temple for his enemies to destroy, they consoled themselves with what Solomon himself said when he consecrated the Temple (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6) as well as what the other prophets said (Is 66:1) – YHWH does not dwell in a building made by the hands of men – he dwells within and amongst the righteous. And this is exactly the accusation that got Steven stoned in Acts 7 – he was insinuating that YHWH did not dwell in the new 2nd Temple as well. And who were the righteous? The children of YHWH who observed the Torah. It can be seen very clearly then where Paul obtains his theology about the Spirit of God dwelling within and amongst Christians in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19. As uncomfortable as it sounds to some Christians, Paul’s own training as a Pharisee had a lot to do with his theology. Paying more attention to Pharisaism might actually be very helpful to understanding the apostle.

Because of the loss of the Temple, which was so central to their lives, the concept of synagogues gained currency as small meeting places where Jews could still meet to peruse the Torah and maintain communal purity even whiles in exile.

Return From Exile

When King Darius the Mede finally allowed them to go back, they returned to meet some of their fellow Jews who remained and were not carried off in the exile, living in Samaria. They had also built their own temple and were claiming that was where YHWH lived. The returnees went back to the 2 remaining regions i.e. the southern region of Judea, where Jerusalem was and northern region of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his life. Samaria was now in the middle of the 2 regions, and one had to cross from one to the other through Samaria (reference Lk 10:25-37 aka the good samaritan story)

The project to rebuild the 2nd Temple began earnestly, the foundation of which was laid by Zerubabel. Again, it attempted to follow the 1st Temple’s design and reach it’s prominence, but that aim was better achieved through the work of King Herod, leading to it being also referred to as “Herod’s Temple”, alongside “Zerubabel’s Temple” as well. This period of return from exile is what is typically referred to as the 2nd Temple period, and is the time when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene. The continuous existence of the Samaritan temple was an affront to the returnees who claimed the Temple ought to be sited in Jerusalem, and led to one of the Maccabean leaders (John Hyrcanus) entering Samaria with his followers and destroying their temple in 110 BC. This is the background for the hatred between the Judaeans/Galileeans on the one hand and their Samaritan brethren on the other, which Jesus addressed in the story of the Samaritan woman.

Note also that it was this same 2nd Temple and its mountain, which occupied the same 25% of Jerusalem like the 1st Temple, that Jesus was addressing when he said “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23), a point which I addressed further in this post.

Pharisaism however, remained a very active force even after the return from exile, and their confrontations with Jesus are well recorded in the Gospels. The obvious clue to Pharisaism’s nonexistence before the exile is the absence of any mention of it in the OT. The same can be said of synagogues.

Conclusion

We can see how the 3 main beliefs of Yisrael informed their attachment to their symbols. Monotheism (YHWH is the one and only God) and election (we are his covenant people) run through every symbol of theirs.

However, the events of the exile and its return put the focus squarely on the third belief – eschatology. We will look at that angle in the next post, and we will begin to see more clearly Jesus’s mission and how it is all driven by the eschatological expectations of the Jews, albeit in a changed way which was very uncomfortable to the Jews themselves.

Let us remember, Jesus was a Jew not a Gentile. Reading him without putting on the glasses of Jewish worldview is probably one of the greatest misfortunes that the church has brought on itself. Because when we do understand and apply that worldview, we begin to see clearer the worldwide implications of the beliefs of a very small nation called Yisrael and their God called YHWH. For the story of Yisrael was never about them alone – it was about them and the rest of the world, but you need to understand Yisrael’s story first, before you get the worldwide impact of their story correct.

Understanding The NT from the OT – Pt 1 – What the Jews Believed

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

Christianity has existed and thrived for the past 2000 year since Jesus death in many shapes and forms. And in that period it has striven to achieve God’s purposes for humanity with very little understanding of the people to whom God first gave the commission to be his people (some of which has been intentional, but also because we simply didn’t have the tools for such understanding in the past). But since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946, further scholarly study of these scrolls has shed great light on the elder brother of Christianity i.e. the form(s) of Judaism that existed during Jesus’ lifetime, and is helping us understand Jesus even better. So I want to begin a series of posts that will shed much more light on how this knowledge is being brought from the scholarly field to strengthen the church and its obedience to Jesus Christ. We will focus on 3 thematic beliefs of Judaism: creational monotheism, election and eschatology and will draw parallels between these beliefs and how they should be the bedrock of Christianity.

Creational Monotheism

One of the core beliefs of Judaism which modern Christians now take for granted, but which was a very serious issue in Jesus time was the belief in only one God – YHWH. This was in opposition to other nations that surrounded them, who believed in other gods (like Baal) and some who belived in more than one god. For example the Greeks and Romans had a god of war (Ares/Mars), a god of travel and trade(Hermes/Mercury), a god of the sea (Poseidon/Neptune) and one who was the king of all gods (Zeus/Jupiter). This is where monotheism comes in – a belief in one supreme being only, summed up in Deutoronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one” encapsulated in the most important Jewish prayer – the Shema.

Not only was YHWH the only god, he was the god who both created the world and was still in charge of it and ordering it’s activities (here comes his “creational” nature). This is why the Psalms are so full of praises not only of how God created the world, but the fact that he was still actively involved in it, nourishing and tending it, and giving every creature food in its season (eg Ps 104). This was in opposition to other nations who believed their gods to be busy doing their own thing and not caring about the people or their suffering (e.g. the Greeks believed the gods lived in Olympus and cared little for the people, so they better fend for themselves. Interestingly this is very similar to how western culture now see God today – a vacant landlord at best).

And because YHWH created everything, Judaism believed he cannot be represented by an image, because he created the wood, stone or clay that one may use to create a symbol of him. Therefore the Jews never believed in creating any idols which could be worshiped. In contrast, other nations who had different gods for different issues/concepts of the world, created images to model who and what kind of god they were (e.g Ares/Mars with his shield, helmet etc. representing war).

Thirdly, because YHWH created the world, he cared about every little bit of it, and even when evil seemed to be thriving for a while (whether through human activity or spiritual activity), YHWH will bring justice to this world and restore it to order. The Psalms speak in many places of God’s justice for this reason (Ps 72).

Note that to the rest of their neighbours, these believes were diametrically opposite what they believed, and caused some offense. But wait till we talk of the greater offense next.

Election

Judaism believed that YHWH was not just the only god, but more importantly, Israel’s god. Yes, he was the god of the whole world (because he created the whole world of course), but YHWH had chosen them for a special purpose, through their father Abraham. In Genesis 12, 15 and 17 YHWH had made many promises to their father Abraham about his special relationship with him and his descendants, that through Abraham the world may be blessed. This notion of election of Israel as God’s special people was further strengthened and solidified in the minds of Jews by God’s might works in saving them from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, protecting a whole nation as they moved in the desert and went past or through other nations (which could and did attempt to destroy them) for 40 years, and bring them to Canaan – the exact land promised to their father Abraham. The Christian traditions who speak of “promises of God” may need to pay much more attention to what they actually mean, not what we’ve turned it into – name it and claim it statements.

This belief in their election out of all nations not only runs through the Old Testament, but is the background to a lot of what Jesus and the Apostles says in the New Testament. Modern Christianity doesn’t appreciate how ingrained such a belief can be in a nation and people, when they and their forefathers experienced and passed on all these stories to them. But we can begin to see the impact of this belief by simply comparing the impact of 400 years of slavery on both Africans in the diaspora, and native Africa, vis-a-vis poverty, deprivation and injustice. This sense of identity and election was further re-invigorated by the continuous observance of their festivals, most glorious of which was the Passover and the rites that each individual family was supposed to perform in celebration of it

YHWH sealed his relationship with them by making a covenant with them – not as individual people, but as a nation. He gave them the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) that they may observe their part of the covenant even as he remains faithful to his.

It is worth noting at this point that this covenant above is predicated by the fact that YHWH had a special relationship with their forefathers, not because the nation Israel itself was any more special. In fact, I dare use the word “grace” to describe YHWH’s election of Israel – because he loved them and their ancestors. This is well stated here.

Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”

Other relevant passages are Deut 10:15;14:2 and Isaiah 41:8-9.

Therefore the giving of the Torah (what Christians refer to as “the Law”) by YHWH was a means of ensuring two things 1) that the nation Israel stayed faithful in the relationship with him 2) that the rest of the world may see and be drawn the the God of Israel. This is further captured here

Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”

Deut 5:1-3 “Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them … it was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us …”

This brings into serious question the traditional negative light in which Protestant Christianity has spoken of Torah and Judaism in general. To most Jewish scholars, Protestant Christians have always accusing them of the wrong thing, because the Torah also stated clearly that their election was by favour (I prefer to use that rather than grace) i.e. by virtue of YHWH’s love for their fathers, and not by their own doing. To them, they way we Christians claim our salvation by the love and mercy of YHWH and not by our “works”, but insist that every Christian must follow and obey Jesus, is the same way they also view their relationship to YHWH and to Torah.

A last note is to be made here. It will be observed throughout books like Deuteronomy that YHWH’s election of Israel was a corporate choosing. His covenant was with Israel, yet it was important that every Tom, Dick and Harry observe the Torah not just for personal benefit sake, but because doing so meant that God’s promises for his nation Israel through their ancestors, will indeed come to pass. Moses further explains need for individual obedience so the corporate goal will be achieved in Deut 29:19-21.

Again, another challenge is thrown to modern Christianity, which places the individual’s “salvation” and personal desires above the corporate intent that God has had for his faithful Israel – Jesus and his church – an intent which as Paul says in the Ephesian epistle was “before the foundation of the world”. In fact I draw a direct parallel here from Deut 4:6-7 about how Israel’s observance of Torah will lead to the other nations seeing the wisdom of God, and Paul’s statements in Eph 3:10 about how the many fold wisdom of God will be made known through the church.

Election therefore meant that Israel were YHWH’s special people, and the rest of the world was not. This obviously infuriated every nation around them, and Israel didn’t stop reminding them everyday, as again explicit in the Psalms and throughout the OT. Even when things were not going too well for them, their election was one thing that they never forgot.

Eschatology

Eschatology is a big word that Jews used to refer to things that will happen at the end of this age (not at the end of the world as is commonly translated).

Moses had set before them the blessings and the curses that will attend them if they observe or break the covenant with God in Deut. 28. I know Christians love quoting the blessings part, but if we are going to be a people who take God’s word seriously, we need to pay attention to the curses as well. Because one will observe that the most disastrous of the curses was exile – their enemies will defeat them and carry them away. And as if Moses knew that they were going to fail in the task of being obedient to YHWH through the Torah, in Deut. 30 he assures them that “when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and all your soul … then the Lord will restore your fortunes … and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” (Deut. 30:2-3).

He even goes further to say that “the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descandants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live”(Deut. 30:6). Do we see where Paul got this from? “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly .. and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28-29)

Further on God gave further prophecies about how he intended for his own appointed king to be the carrier of his vision of Israel being a blessing to the world and the world coming under the authority of Israel. These he expounded to David through the prophet Samuel (2 Sam 7), and became known as the expectation of the coming of “the kingdom of YHWH”.

Thirdly there was there were some questions of human nature and the world they lived in that didn’t make sense. If YHWH was the one who created a good world, why does he allow evil to exist (i.e. both human sin and natural disasters)? Why does the wicked sometimes flourish, and the righteous perish? Why do seemingly innocent people die from earthquakes, typhoons etc?

The answers they came up with were that because YHWH is a righteous God, he will not abandon his creation to be overtaken by evil, and will one day return to restore this world into the good nature he intended. This hope of God remaking this world to correct what evil has brought into it is what is typically captured by the term “new creation” by both Judaism/early Christianity. These kinds of hopes are littered throughout the Psalms and prophets.

Later on, when the exile did happen, the prophets began to not only prophecy the return of Israel back from exile as stated by Moses, they also prophecied that this return will be accompanied by the announcement of the “kingdom of YHWH” and his work in bringing judgement to the world, so he can cleanse the world and bring in his new creation. Isaiah expounds it better, by saying that God will make a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17;66:22).

It is based on this that Revelations says not only will he make the new heaven and new earth, but God will bring his dwelling place (heaven) and mix it with our dwelling place (earth) into one (Rev 21;1-4).

Conclusion

These 3 themes: creational monotheism, election and eschatology are the main themes that drive everything else in the Bible, both Old Testment and New. As a result, they led to the creation, adoption and attachment to certain symbols, and we will look at those symbols in Part 2.

Jesus of the Gospels: His Apocalyptic Vision

One of the more controversial, but seemingly very “settled” portions of Jesus ministry in the minds of most Christians is the apocalyptic angle of his ministry. By apocalyptic vision, we refer to our understanding of Jesus sayings regarding events that are supposed to happen at the “end of the world”. In this scheme of thinking then, this world is to undergo some catastrophic destruction, so that all the righteous of God will be in heaven, and the unrighteous go to hell. To put it in Jimmy Reeve’s words, “this world is not our home, we’re just a passing through”. Some scholars therefore claim that either Jesus’s sayings about the end of the world didn’t come true (which most ordinary Christians don’t agree with) or that everything that Jesus said referred to a yet to be fulfilled future.

This apparent problem of fulfillment is further worsened by the determination of Christians of dispensationalist leanings, to paint the picture of a great rapture and something called a “Great Tribulation”. Whether this “tribulation” will happen before the “rapture” or not is itself another subject of debate, and therefore we have pre-tribulational dispensationalists, and post-tribulational dispensationalists. In fact to even attempt to address these issues in a single post is a daunting task, and yet my focus is to put the spotlight where the debate needs to be focused – not of our own interpretations of the book of Revelations over the last 200 or so years of Christianity, but on 1st Century Jewish thinking of what the end will be like, and how Jesus Christ captures this end in nowhere else but the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The End of the World?

First and foremost, there is a problem with the translation of the phrase “end of the world”. This translation easily lends itself to abuse, strengthening the picture in our mind of everything being destroyed and the righteous being carried off into heaven. Jews never expected the “end of the world”, but the “end of this age”. For the Jew, the coming of the Messiah represents the end of the old world order, where the kings of the world did as they pleased in spite of Yahweh’s will, to a state in which the Messiah does the will of the Father, and dispensing justice to all and putting the worldly kings in their proper place. This is captured in many places in the Psalms (Ps 2, Ps 72 etc). This, the Jews called the coming of “the kingdom of God”, or “the kingdom of Heaven”. To them, this earth was the good creation of God flawed by sin, and when his kingdom comes in its fullness, God will only transform this world into what he really desired it to be like, not throw it away and carry us all off to heaven.

But how did we come to these previous ideas about the end of the age? It’s because of a literalist attempt to analyze documents which were never meant to be literal. Jewish and biblical apocalyptic literature was not meant to be understood literally, but was meant to be a symbolic and metaphoric way of talking about how God intended to bring his justice to the world in a language that only it’s recipients can fully discern, and not any other average Joe (or in this case, average Babylonian, Syrian or Roman conqueror of the Jews). To refuse to see its metaphorical nature is to be open to folly. Dr. Ben Witherington III relates a story of somebody and his wife giving him and a friend a ride in a mountainous area in the US after their car broke down, and in conversation the couple stated that they believe the earth was flat. They explained that if the earth was not flat, why does the book of Revelations say that angels will stand at the 4 corners of the earth holding the 4 winds (Rev 7:1)? Being stuck in need of a ride, he refused to challenge them or face walking in the cold. If in the 20th century, people can think like this about apocalyptic literature, do we not have questions to answer?

So let’s take a closer look at Jesus’s ministry vis-à-vis Jewish thinking about the end of the age in the synoptic gospels.

The Kingdom of God

And so Jesus goes about saying all sorts of things about “the kingdom of God” being near and being amongst them and so on. The unfortunate thing for us Christians is that the bible doesn’t record the fact that before and after Jesus Christ there were many other people claiming to be the “bringers of the kingdom of God”, from John of Gischala (BC) to Simon Bar Kochba (AD). And yet none of them said “hey get ready, God is going to destroy this earth and carry us all off to heaven” (if you want to know more of these, there are freely available online copies of Josephus the historian’s book ‘War of the Jews’ and other histories of 1st century Judaism which are informative on the subject).

However what made Jesus stand out was his insistence that Israel had failed its commission to be the light of the world (something I mentioned in my previous post here). Therefore not only was the kingdom of God arriving in him, but the Jewish nation were under judgment if they do not come and follow him, the true light of the world. Note that the words that the prophets like Isaiah used to describe Israel like “light of the world”, “the vine”, and “the sheep” etc., Jesus Christ used to describe himself in the gospels. He was the true Israel, and all who were “in him” could now enter the kingdom of God.

Suffice it to say that many people despised Jesus for what he said, but he purposed to show them who he was, and how their rejection of him will lead to their destruction. And so he begins a sequence of prophetic activities which although they seem random, are actually references back to and fulfillment of what the prophets had said about him, but also what they had said about unfaithful Israel. This is easiest to see when we use the Gospel of Mark, since all scholars agree it’s the gospel with which does the best at recording events of Jesus life according to the order in which they happened.

The Coming Judgment

He begins by riding into Jerusalem as a king, but as an unexpected one – on riding on a colt (Mk 11:1-11). Because it’s late, he then stays at Bethany and returns to the temple in the morning. On his way from Bethany to the temple, he does a weird thing by cursing a fig tree, even though the fig tree was not guilty because “IT WAS NOT THE SEASON FOR FIGS” (Mk 11:13, my emphasis). His disciples don’t understand, but he was enacting what Jeremiah had said about unfaithful Israel (Jeremiah 8, especially v 13 – “there will be no grapes on the vine, there will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither”). He goes on to the temple, and drives out those selling and buying there. In the process, he accuses them of making the place “a den of robbers” (Mk 11:17). Again, he is symbolizing the coming destruction to the temple, using the same words that Jeremiah used against unfaithful Israel before Babylon came to destroy the temple and carry everyone off to Babylon (Jeremiah 7, especially v 11). In Mk 11:16, Jesus “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts”, same as prophesied in Zech 14:21 (“And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty”).

And when the next day they pass by the fig-tree, the disciples realized it had withered, just as Jesus had said. Asking him about the fig tree, he makes an even more astonishing (and probably one of the most abused) statement – “If anyone says to THIS MOUNTAIN, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23, my emphasis). Anyone who is familiar with the topography of the land from Bethany to Jerusalem will have known that “THIS MOUNTAIN” is a specific reference – to the temple mount. Jesus is not giving us a license to move mountains (as our motivational speakers like to tell us). He is really talking about a mountain that is already under condemnation – the temple of Jerusalem.

The Destruction of the Temple and City

In Mk 13, his disciples ask him for signs of the end of the age (again, not the end of the world). Note where Jesus was at the time – “Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives OPPOSITE THE TEMPLE …” (v 3 my emphasis). He uses he whole chapter to talk about the coming destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem and towards the end, makes a pivotal statement which has become a boulder to many to swallow – “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Mk 13:30).

I posit to you that this happened in AD 70, when the Roman legion matched down on Jerusalem and did exactly what Jesus predicted, in exactly the time he predicted it – one generation after his death around AD 33. And interestingly it is recorded in history that the Jewish Christians were obedient to the words of Jesus Christ, and fled before the coming destruction of the Roman armies. Their key was to look out for the occurrence of Lk 20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near”. For the Romans indeed surrounded Jerusalem to destroy it before AD 70, but had to return due to an emergency at home. This provided the Jewish Christians with the perfect opportunity to leave, and a year later, when the Romans did return, the final destruction of Jerusalem was completed.

But the Bible Said …

Now here are some of the typical objections people raise to the above

  • But the bible said “there shall be wars and rumors of wars …? Nations will rise against nations … etc.?” – Well, who said these things didn’t happen in that one generation? Just read Tacitus, Josephus and other historians of the time.
  • But what about the “tribulations” as described in these gospels? – Again, there was indeed a lot of violence visited on Jewish Christians after Jesus’s death. Let’s not forget Stephen being stoned, Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, James the brother of Jesus being killed, and a whole lot more. The name of Jesus Christ was still dangerous, whether before or after his death. The historical extra-biblical sources bear witness to these tribulations.
  • But Matt 24:29-31 talks about the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, stars falling from the sky etc. Did those things not point to the future destruction of the earth? – Ah, that is apocalyptic language for you. It’s metaphor, not literal. It’s meant to show the significance of the events that will happen. Let me give you an example (not even from New but the Old Testament, and not even from the prophets, but somewhere further back).

When the Lord delivered David from his enemies, he sang a song in 2 Samuel 22, which makes use of Jewish apocalyptic language to describe how God fought the battle on his behalf …

“In my distress, I cried out to the Lord, I called out to my God … The earth trembled and quaked, the foundations of the heavens shook, they trembled because he was angry … the valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare, at the rebuke of the Lord … he reached down from on high and took hold of me, he drew me out of deep waters.” (2 Samuel 22:7-17).

Now I’m not sure you can point out anywhere in the OT where God actually dried up the valleys of the sea or where the earth trembled for David to be delivered. The point is, such language is used to describe how significant God’s activity in the physical sense was. As NT Wright says, apocalyptic imagery is used to “invest natural events with their theological significance”

So, is there A Second Coming of Jesus?

Yes, Jesus Christ is coming again. But his kingdom has already began, and he is king of the world now and our task as the church is not to be the voluntary association of the saved, but the place that he both manifests his kingdom, and brings that kingdom’s benefits to the rest of the world. And when he comes in power and in glory, he’s not coming to carry us away to heaven. He’s going to bring heaven and earth together, and the dwelling place of God will be amongst men (Rev 21:1-3).

The Jews did believe that when they die, they go to heaven. But they certainly held that when God’s kingdom is fully revealed in power and glory, God will come down with his saints to join those on earth, and not the other way round (this is what they meant by “resurrection”). The Greeks on the other hand, believed that this earth is a hopeless place, and our ultimate destination is in a heavenly place with the gods. Well, the last time I checked, Jesus was a Jew, not a Greek.

There’s a lot more to be said on the subject, but there’s too little space to write it in one post. I’ve intentionally kept the focus on what Jesus Christ himself said and what a 1st century Jew of his day would have heard him say. Until we can answer the challenge of apocalypse as presented by the Gospels, let’s not be busy confusing ourselves with other biblical apocalyptic literature, especially the book of Revelations. Apocalypse was fully woven into the ministry of Jesus, and his kingdom coming is the beginning of the end of the age, not just the announcement of its future fulfillment.

Oh, So Were We Not Raptured? Or Should We Have Been?

Apparently there was supposed to be rapture on the 21st May 2011, as predicted by Harold Camping of the Family Radio Network. So if you are reading this piece, two things must have happened. Possibly, your sins were too many to warrant you a passport to partake of the rapture, or the more obvious thing happened – the rapture predictions of Mr. Camping were simply what they were; a failed weather forecast.

However in my interactions with most Christians, the generality of Ghanaian Christians do believe that there will be a Rapture of some sorts indeed. Their only beef is the attempt by the venerable [sic] Mr. Camping to put a date to something that Christ did not know and said we could not know.  Well, I do not only question the predictive skills of Mr. Camping, I want to go beyond that and question the premise of biblical support for something called “The Rapture” in the first place. So let’s try and push the envelope of eschatology and see what we get.

I will admit before I go on that there is so much that needs to be answered that I cannot answer in this post alone, and some which I (and many other Christians) don’t even know the answer to, given the symbolic nature of how apocalyptic hopes are described in the NT and other non-biblical but related documents. I will focus solely on the concept of Rapture, and leave the rest to our own personal research.

The Jewish Hope of Yahweh’s Coming

Again, as I’ve been doing in my previous posts, we cannot fail to overlook the fact that Christianity is the junior brother of Judaism. Therefore any attempt to understand Christianity on its own without a reference to the root from which it originated will be an attempt to create a caricature of our own idea of Jesus and his purpose for his people.

The Jews have always had a hope of God coming to transform this earth and set it aright, where he himself dwells amongst man and as a result Jerusalem will be the light to the rest of the world. Because of their special ideas about God establishing his kingdom and ruling from Jerusalem, they always considered themselves the royal people, and there was no shortage of boasting about this status. Take a look at Isaiah 65 and see how “different” it is from Rev 21.

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” (Isaiah 65:17-18 NIV).

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’” (Rev 21:1-3 NIV).

From the above (and a host of other prophecies as well as a proper study of Judaism), their mindset of the earth was quite different from ours. The earth was not some damned place that we need to escape from and go to heaven – the earth is where the action is, because God’s intent is to dwell with men in a renewed heaven and earth. The Jewish mind understands that God is in charge of both the heaven and the earth and he created a good earth, but sin had blighted this earth. Therefore their hope and expectation was that God will come and renew this earth, and bring the wonders of that heaven in which he lives to bear fully on this earth, causing a fusion of the two. Unlike Greco-Roman paganism’s thoughts of the spirit leaving this corrupt world for the world of the gods (heaven), Jews believed that we will walk on a renewed earth in a renewed body (the resurrection body) and experience the joys of this earth with God himself. Unfortunately Greco-Roman paganism seems to have carried the day even in Christian teachings about heaven and earth. As Paul taught, our spirits only go to be with the Lord in heaven to wait for our other brethren and for the time when we’ll return to reign on this earth and God will clothe us with immortal bodies. The earth is indeed where the action is.

This hope of a new and renewed earth also went along not only with joy for them, but judgment for those they esteemed in their mind are “sinners” – Gentiles and those Israelites who were not “faithful” to the law as they interpreted it. This judgment was to be brought by the one whom God will give authority over the kingdom to – the one whom Daniel calls the Son of Man in Daniel 7:14 – the Messiah. Interestingly most Jews viewed it as a day of God vindicating Israel and judging its enemies, but the prophets Amos and Zephaniah were not so charitable to them in their claims of superiority.

“Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light … Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:18; 23-24 NIV).

“The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there … I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zeph. 1:14; 17)

In fact Isaiah 61 captures the spirit of what that day entails and what the Messiah will do – both on the positive – renewing the earth and bringing joy to “them that love his appearance” – and the negative – bringing “vengeance” to those that do not.

The Christian Hope of Jesus’ Coming

In a lot of ways there is very little difference between the Jewish hope and the early Christian hope of the return of Christ. To us Jesus is the Messiah, and therefore all the prophecy relating to the kingdom will be fulfilled in him. However, because this Messiah had already appeared amongst men and expounded specifically that his kingdom had begun; the early Christians did not only wait for the eschatological appearance of their king, but preached his current reign over all the earth.  Those of you who have read my previous post on “The Gospel of the Kingdom – Resurrection Perspectives” would be familiar with the point made by many contemporary NT scholars that Christ’s kingdom is both now and in the future. Therefore our responsibility on this earth as we wait for that future kingdom is to manifest the King and his kingdom’s character today on this earth.

The Origins of Rapture Theology

It will surprise you to note that the ideas around the Rapture event are very recent in history. Even a Wikipedia entry will educate us that there is very little mention of this idea of Jesus coming in two phases until the 17th century. Unfortunately this theology has been picked up and drummed up by a group of theologians called Dispensational Theologians. It’s wide spread began with John Nelson Darby, who was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren in England and went over to evangelize in America as well between 1859 and 1877. According to Ben Witherington III in “The Problem with Evangelical Theology”

“Darby showed up on the brink of the [American] Civil War, during the war, and after the war, right when many Americans were quite vulnerable to an escapist theology that promised they would not have to go through the great tribulation. The timing could not have been better for promulgating such a theology”.

This teaching was further spread by the popular evangelist D.L. Moody and his Moody Bible Institute and John Scoffield with his Scofield Bible. To promote this theology, the Dallas Theological Seminary was established in 1924, and there is no question why most of the popular Dispensationalists all went to, are associated with or claim influence from people who went there. In contemporary days, this teaching has led to popular “Left Behind” books and movies, picturing Christ coming to take the Christians away from this earth and leaving everyone else behind. From the preceding historical discourse, it’s not surprising that Mr. Camping is an American.

The Theology Backing It

This whole theology hangs on the somewhat misunderstood interpretation of Paul’s description of the coming of Christ in 1 Thess. 4:13-17 and 5:1-11. In particular, this theology has hang it’s boots on two phrases or words i) parousia – which means “coming” or more correctly “presence” and ii) haparzo – which means “caught up” and is the root word for rapture. As usual because of our penchant for creating theologies without recourse to context and history, we have presented Paul as saying in the above passages that there is coming a time when Christ will come and take us up to heaven, before he subsequently comes a second time to judge the world. Let us see if a little contextual background and further probing will not help clear up this confusion.

In the times of the Caesars – Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar and his lineage – when the emperor visited any of his subject cities/states, this was announced beforehand by the sounding of trumpets (just like 1 Thess. 4:16 (KJV) For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God). Those who are the leaders of the city and all Roman citizens living in the city were mandated to form a welcoming party and meet the king outside the gates of the city (Just like Ps 24:7 (KJV) Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in).They then escort this king through the city gates into the city, singing his praises and declaring “peace and security” in the name of that emperor (Just like 1 Thess. 5:3 KJV –For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape”).

Those with a keen eye will also notice that this sequence of events is very similar to the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem on his colt. It will be noted also that the book of Psalms is full of such imagery related to the Messianic King. In fact, these practices of subjects welcoming their kings were very common in ancient times, and the Roman emperor was no exception. Of course, the emperors probably demanded even more courtesy, pomp and pageantry for the emperors actually declared themselves gods in every right.

Most people do not take into account the fact that at some point, Thessalonica was historically quite a respected city in Greco-Roman times. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was indeed a dangerous one, for already in Act 17:7, Paul had been accused of “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus”. Therefore there was no doubt that the Christians in Thessalonica were under a lot of persecution for their defiance of Caesar and declaration of Jesus as king. Therefore it is natural that having lost some of their members to persecution, they’d be worried if their dead brethren will be able to partake of the “parousia” of Christ and therefore wrote to Paul to find out the fate of those who’d died.

The Thessalonians may have been Greeks and didn’t know that the OT had the same concepts, but they definitely understood “parousia” of Jesus not in “rapture to heaven”, but welcoming king Jesus into the city – in this case onto this earth. Hear the New Testament writer Ben Witherington III:

“ Paul’s Thessalonian audience may have missed some of the allusions to the OT, but they would not have missed the language used here about a royal visit, indeed an imperial visit. They would remember the visit of Pompey and later Octavian and others in the days when Thessalonike could even be talked about by Pompey as the capital in exile.”

It is instructive to note that although v 17 says Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” – it does not say that we will then go on to heaven. It only says that we will be with him. Are we just going to be hanging with him in the skies, or as a kingly visit denotes and as the context clearly shows, we will come down with him to show the rest of the world this King we’ve been making a big fuss about all along? This king whose kingdom we’ve been building on this earth through love and self-sacrifice for one another?

Conclusion

“The Ascension of Jesus and the Second Coming are nevertheless vital Christian doctrines, and I don’t deny that I believe some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation. This is taught throughout the New Testament outside the Gospels. But this event won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account.” –  NT Wright, Eminent NT scholar in “Farewell to the Rapture”

I don’t want to go beyond 4 pages on my word processor, so I’m forced to cut short the discourse. However, is our gullibility in respect of “rapture” not a reflection of the fact that we haven’t understood what the Kingdom of God/Heaven – which appears more than 50 times in the Gospels – truly means? And if we haven’t understood it, then whose kingdom are we building – ours?