According to Scriptures Pt 1 – Son of God

Wanted Jesus
Wanted Jesus

One of the problems that I have faced in communicating and discussing the word of God with other Christians is one finds that we have a lot of our definitions messed up. Words and phrases that meant one thing in biblical times have now come to mean different things altogether. At the least, the impact of these phrases have been reduced so we don’t see how profound they are. But at the worst, I find what I believe to be totally flawed understandings of phrases and words in the bible, upon which people are then able to construct all sorts of weird teaching.

This series of posts is my attempt to provide a clearer definition of some of these phrases that are so common in Christendom but which need to be clarified today. Some of these terms are “salvation”, “forgiveness of sins”, “new creation”, “son of God” and “kingdom of God/kingdom of Heaven”, and I will discuss some of them in no particular order. One thing needs to remain clear to the Christian though – when Paul used the phrase “according to scriptures” in 1 Cor 15:4, he was referring to the books we call the Old Testament, and mostly from the Greek translation of it (the Septuagint). The New Testament as we know it didn’t exist then, and was not where the prophecies about Jesus would be found. Note that the writers of the books of the New Testament were not Greeks, Romans, Ghanaians or Germans. They were Jews, and so the text is bound to reflect a Jewish worldview somewhat. If Christians are to understand very well where the terms and phrases we so love to use come from, we need to lay the ground work from what the writers themselves considered “scripture”, before getting ahead of ourselves.

Son of God?

Jesus calls himself (and is called by his disciples) “son of God”. Most good, devout, Sunday school taught Christians immediately understand this phrase to mean that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity i.e. he is a divine being from God and one with the Godhead. Let me state quite clearly here before I am accused of heresy that I side with a million and one Christians in the belief in Jesus’ divine nature and a belief in the Trinity. However, if we apply Paul’s litmus test aka according to the Old Testament – that is not what “son of God” means. What does it mean then?

The phrase “son of God”, “children of God” and “sons and daughters/people of God” has been used in many ways to denote a special election of God of a certain people or person. It is used to refer to the kings of this world here.

I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” (Ps 82:6-7)

It is used to refer to a particular king of the Jews called the Anointed one (the Messiah)

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:12–14 cf. 1 Chron 17:11–14)

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah] … He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’ (Ps 2:2-7).

He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior. And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.” (Ps 89:26-27)

And sometimes it is used to refer to the nation Israel itself, and the special kind of relationship between God and his chosen nation. The language of sonship and children vis-a-vis Israel is a language of special status, of election, a concept about which I’ve written elsewhere. Note that nowhere in the OT is anyone refered to as a “son of God/sons of God/people of God/sons and daughters of God” except kings of the world, the Messiah or Israel as a nation.

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex 4:22)

I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). 2 Cor 6:18 expands this to mean “you will be my sons and daughters”.

Nowhere in all these usages are we seeing a divine, explicitly Trinitarian usage of the phrase “son of God”. The Jews of Jesus day were definitely looking forward to a Messiah descended from David who will come and restore their fortunes against their enemies, as expounded by the totality of the Psalms referenced above and a lot more, as well as the prophets. The fact that in Jesus, the king turned out to be not only human but divine was not what their understanding of Messiah was, and we can now look at the NT and see what I mean.

Son Of God in The Gospels

There are many usages of the phrase “son of God” recorded in the gospels, but the most poignant of them was at the trial of Jesus. The most important reason why the Sanhedrin council had to bring Jesus before Pilate was that the power to crucify a person was the preserve only of the Roman governor at the time. And if they simply went to the Roman governor and said “we don’t like this man’s teaching” or “he’s been criticizing us”, the best he would have done was to put him in jail for a few days and let him go (if he doesn’t end up throwing the case out of court in the first place). They needed a charge that was capital, and given the amount of rebellion that existed at the time and in previous years with the many previous “Messiahs” gone past, the only charge that will catch the attention of the governor was a charge of treason – treason because there was in fact a “King of the Jews” in the name of Herod appointed by the Romans. Any other person calling themselves “king” was attempting a coup d’etat, not only against Herod, but against his appointee – Rome. That was a crucifiable offence. Hear the Sanhedrin’s accusation.

The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” (Jn 19:7)

Now, Pilate obviously didn’t think they were saying Jesus was divine or the 2nd person of the trinity. Hear him.

But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” (Jn 18:39)

Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ Shall I crucify your king?‘ Pilate asked. ”We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered. (Jn 19:14-15)

It is no surprise then that Pilate had the title “King of the Jews” hang on Jesus cross. And we also note that Jesus never denied that he was king of the Jews during his trial, for that is what Christ or Messiah actually means. The above passages show clearly what Jews meant by “son of God”. A few more examples from the Gospels will suffice.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”(Jn 1:49)

Note that his disciples did clearly recognize his claim to be the Anointed one. For example Jesus commended Peter for saying that Jesus was the Christ (the title Christ was Greek whiles Messiah was Jewish for the same thing – “Anointed One”), the “Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15-17), again referring to the title under discussion.

But, But, But …

Yes I know, Jesus DID say he was divine in may places, quite uncountable to mention. But until his death and resurrection, his disciples only understood him to be the Messiah, albeit one with some wonderful powers and gifts.

However, he was always challenging these disciples and other people (including his enemies) to see the Messiah as more than a mere human, quoting Ps 110 and saying that “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son (Mt 22:45)”? Here, Jesus is appealing to David saying “The Lord said to my Lord” signifie that whoever David was talking about was more than just his son.

But it is pretty obvious not only tracing it from the OT but in the gospels and in all Jewish understanding that although there were hints like Ps 110 that seemed to point to the Messiah being more than just a normal human being, Jews never understood “son of God” to mean a divine person, but rather God’s anointed King, just like Moses was God’s anointed prophet and Aaron God’s anointed priest.

After his death AND resurrection, his disciples now understood that Jesus was indeed divine and expressed that much throughout their words and writings in the New Testament. But they still used “son of God” in the Messianic sense of the expected descendant of David, as depicted by Paul in Rom 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8.

But Are We Not Splitting Hairs Here?

That’s the obvious question. What’s the big deal afterall? And the answer is NO WE ARE NOT. As Jackson Wu, a Chinese missional theologian says “We must not misuse scripture to prove the truth … when we settle for what is merely true (that Jesus has a divine nature), we miss out on what the phrase [son of God] actually means.” It is obvious most Christians have confused the Trinitarian phrase “God the Son” with the Messianic phrase “Son of God”. And this is rather ironic given that the latter is explicitly written and expounded in scripture, whiles the former had to be deduced. I dare say that a misunderstanding of what “son of God” means has left room for 2 very serious errors.

The first is to seriously question the ground on which some Christians stand basing on a flawed understanding of the New Testament’s description of the church as “sons of God” to mean that Christians are somehow divine. Jews believed they were “sons of God” too, but never went as far as to consider themselves divine.

The second and even more tragic one for me is that because we have so “spiritualized” and “divinized” everything about Jesus, much of the church today has totally ignored the real human, earthy and here-and-now task that the Messiah and his followers (his church), empowered by the Spirit of God was supposed to achieve. Bringing good news to the poor, relief for the sick, hope to the fatherless, the widow and the stranger and of writing the wrongs in society – in short we have hammered on personal salvation, and left cosmic justice behind. I intend to take this up further down in the series, but when I read the Messianic Psalms, the prophets and the gospels the trend is clear – the Messiah’s task was a task of changing the world order spiritually, socially, economically and ecologically.

When all we care about is a divine Jesus, we will miss his kingly, this-worldly impact altogether.

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.

Understanding the NT from the OT – Pt 3 – The Return of the King

Understanding the NT from the OT – Pt 3 – The Return of the King

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

I chose to title this post after the 3rd book in the magnificent JRR Tolkien’s fantasy epic series “The Lord of the Rings” – because this post focuses on the eschatological expectations of the Jews vis-a-vis the return of YHWH, and how that forms the basis of what we read in the New Testament. In Part 1, we looked at the 3 main beliefs of the Jews (monotheism, election, eschatology). In Part 2 we looked at the 3 main symbols of land, temple and law (Torah), and the impact of 2 of the above mentioned beliefs on these symbols, as well as the impact of the exile. I intentionally left out the eschatological angle for a longer discourse, so here we go.

An “Eschatologically-Flavoured” Rent Contract?

Recently, New Testament scholar Scott McKnight pointed out an article on the Christian Science Monitor about certain clauses in rent contracts in Jerusalem today. Apparently some landlords living abroad had stipulated in their contracts with their tenants that whenever the Messiah is revealed in Jerusalem, the tenants have a short time (i.e. a week, month, 3 months etc) to vacate their rented houses for their returning owners who want to be part of this prophesied return. Because most Christians (including myself) already believe Jesus is the Messiah, such an actualization of Jewish belief will sound weird to us. But I believe the devil is in the detail of this story, so let’s get on with a short discussion of Israel’s eschatological hopes, because a single post like this cannot really summarize enough the huge tomes that have been written on this subject.

Deuteronomy 30, and the Return of YHWH

When the Babylonian destruction and exile happened, the people of the Land of Yisrael realized that something dreadful had happened – YHWH who had led them with a mighty hand and outstretched arm from slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea; into the desert and wilderness for 40 good years; fed them with manna and quail; led them to defeat Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites and given them the land promised to their fathers – this faithful and loving god YHWH had abandoned them to their enemies.

The prophets who had seen this coming destruction and warned them to no avail, had now begun rallying the people back to hope, pointing them to what Moses had said in Deuteronomy 30 about YHWH looking favorably on them again if they didn’t loose hope and rather kept faith with him. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah,Ezekiel etc expounded on this hope of YHWH returning to them, and so developed certain beliefs, some which already existed before the exile and needed rekindling, and some which were new. These became the hopes that they held to and believed that YHWH was going to do when he returned to them.

The Return of YHWH – The Kingdom of YHWH and His Messiah

Way before the exile, YHWH had promised David an everlasting kingdom, with his heir being the one to lead that kingdom (2 Sam 7). David himself then pens down Ps 72, expounding what kind of king this will be aka his job description. In this psalm, you see clearly David referencing the promise first made to Abraham – “Then all the nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed (Ps 72:17)”.

Now the prophet Isaiah restates these credentials of the coming Messiah in chapter 42, 49 etc

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations” (Is 42:1).

You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor” (Is 49:3)

Any observant student of the bible will notice that this is exactly what was repeated when the Spirit of God descended on Jesus whiles he received his baptism from John the baptist Mt 3:17;Mk 1:11). Two other things were to be noted as well about Jesus’s style of speaking

  1. He alluded to passages like Isaiah 42,49 when he kept insisting that “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (Jn 8:28;Jn 5:30 ). He was basically saying that being that prophesied servant, YHWH was displaying his splendor through him (Is 49:3).
  2. The OT only spoke of a “Father/Son” relationship in reference to either YHWH and his nation Israel, or YHWH and his servant to come (as in Ps 2). It was therefore highly unusual for Jesus to be speaking of being a “son” to “The Father”. Any observant Jew who listens to the Neviim (prophets) and the Ketuvim (the Psalms and writings) being read in he synagogue every sabbath would notice the allusion to the “Father/Son relationship” as mentioned Ps 2 and many other such quotations from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh).

Now note lastly the purpose of YHWH putting his spirit on his servant – “and he will bring justice to the world”. The whole chapter 42 seems to dwell on that theme – justice. Jesus’s statements about “the kingdom of heaven/YHWH is at hand” could only mean one thing – YHWH has returned to look favourably on Israel, though the nature of that return was quite unexpected.

The Return of YHWH – The Outpouring of His Spirit

We tend to locate our attempts to look at the pouring out of the spirit of God from only the prophets, but the concept actually dates back to the Exodus and Moses himself. Moses sets the tone by stating

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul and live” (Deut 30:6).

Here lies what Israel felt was the problem leading to their exile. They hadn’t been faithful observers of the Laws of YHWH, leading to his abandonment. Therefore they hoped that YHWH’s return will mean he himself will enable them to be better observers of Torah, making them his true children, as captured by Jeremiah:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.”(Jer 31:33-34)

The prophet Joel expounds on this, stating that it is God’s own Spirit which he will give to his people when he returns, that will make them true and faithful children of his.

And afterward,I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy,your old men will dream dreams,your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28)

So then, to the early Christians, Jesus’s promise and outpouring of the Spirit signified again, that YHWH had indeed returned, and had began assembling his new faithful people who serve him not by their own effort, but by his own Spirit implanted in them. Hence, Paul’s argument in Romans 2

No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God” (Ro 2:29)

In today’s flurry about the Holy Spirit, it seems we haven’t paid much attention to what really mattered to the prophets then. Yes, the Spirit would give us certain gifts that we didn’t have before, but as Paul points out it is meant to achieve 2 clear things

  1. Whatever gift one receives, is for the benefit of all.“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for THE COMMON GOOD. (my emphasis)”(1 Cor 12:7)
  2. The presence of the Spirit was to make us better observers of the Law of God, just as Moses and the prophets had desired.“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22)

So contrary to popular belief of Charismatically-influenced Christianity, the Spirit of God is not a genie in the bottle that we rub in the right way (probably through the rattling of some “tongues”) and use as a tool to pursue our selfish personal agenda. It was given to seal us (1 Cor 1:22, Eph 1:13), to set us apart as the new faithful people of YHWH who go about doing YHWH’s will. Now read Acts 2, and see what the Holy Spirit led them to be – a peculiar people (election) who went about doing good (justice) and healing those under the devil’s control, just as their Messiah did (Ac 10:38).

The Return of YHWH – The Coming in of the Nations/Gentiles

When this Kingdom was inaugurated, then one of the cardinal desires for which the Torah was given to Israel (which we discussed in Part 1) was that the nations/Gentiles will see the light of YHWH, and be drawn to worship and submit to him. One of the tasks he gives his servant in Isaiah 42

I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles”(Is 42:6).

Ps 67 repeats this expectation, asking that

May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face shine on us – so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation AMONG ALL NATIONS”(Ps 67:1-2 my emphasis).

Because the early disciples Jewish as they were born, viewed Jesus life, ministry, death and resurrection as a sign that YHWH had returned, coupled with the pouring out of the Spirit, it meant the door had to be open now for the Gentiles to become part of the new faithful people of YHWH. And so begins this mission, began by Peter to Cornelius, and fully taken up by Paul. Here then is the whole center of the arguments about justification, and why the Torah was now an inhibitor to this welcome of the Gentile. Because Torah was meant to keep the people of Israel separate from the nations, it wasn’t possible to still obey it, and be able to welcome the Gentile as well. The Torah said the Jew must not eat with the Gentile, that the Jew must not marry a Gentile, that to be considered one of the people of God the Gentile must be circumcised and so on. Therefore Paul comes to the conclusion that “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:24) i.e. Jesus the Messiah had established a new means of being considered a faithful child of God – faith in Jesus the Messiah.

The Return of YHWH – Judgement

Another expectation of the return of YHWH was judgment – judgment of his own people and judgment of the nations. It was expected that when YHWH returned, he will repay all the enemies of Israel for the wicked that they have done not only to Israel, but to the world. The Psalms are full of such statements, from Ps 110:6; 9:8; 76:9 etc. Psalm 149 says

May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, to inflict vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, their nobles with shackles of iron, to carry our the sentence written against them – this is the glory of all his faithful people.” (Ps 149:6-9)

The early Christians viewed this judgment in 2 forms. The first was the judgment that comes on Israel for it’s unbelief in who they believed was the Messiah – Jesus the Christ. Hence they took Jesus predictions about the coming destruction of Jerusalem quite seriously (Mk 13,Mt 24), and many of these Christians in Jerusalem were able to escape to tell the tale in AD 70.

The second was that Jesus will return to now serve justice to the rest of the world, as is expected of the Messiah. One (and certainly not the only) measures by which YHWH was going to judge this world was by the simple word – justice. Ps 82 shows him calling all the “gods” (leaders of the world) before him and rebuking them for showing partiality, wickedness, failure to defend the weak, and general injustice. The world’s political leaders may be wary to pay attention, for their time will come soon enough. Even Paul focuses on the same issue when he speaks to Gentiles in Athens

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 [Jesus] from the dead” (Act 17:31, my emphasis)

The Return of YHWH – New Heaven and New Earth

It was expected that YHWH’s return will culminate finally in a transformation of both heaven and earth, such that heaven and earth will now be together, and YHWH will come and dwell with men on this newly merged earth. The prophet Isaiah speaks of this.

See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Is 65:17)

The expectation also developed that YHWH will create a new Jerusalem, from whence he will dwell. The prophet Ezekiel seemed to have sparked off this expectation, writing no less than 8 chapters on the subject (Ezekiel 40-48) with the expectation that this city will be built by God himself. This therefore came to be referred to as the “New Jerusalem”. Some apocryphal books like 4 Ezra, 2 & 3 Baruch explore this further.

Coupled with this was the development of the hope of resurrection. Whatever new world God was going to create, how could Abraham (as well as all their forefathers) who was dead, also benefit from it? By resurrection from the dead. The righteous were in heaven with the YHWH, but when he returns with them he will give them new bodies and they will dwell with the rest of those alive in this new world of his.

In Christianity, this hope of a new heaven and earth as well as a New Jerusalem is merged together into one in Rev 21.

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, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev 21:1-3)

Even Abraham is supposed to be looking forward to that same “New Jerusalem” in Hebrews

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went … he lived in tents … for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”(Heb 11:8-10).

The only city in the OT whose architect and builder is God is the New Jerusalem.

Conclusion

Now with all this eschatological expectations about YHWH’s return, imagine Jesus saying “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”. What do you think a devout, synagogue-attending, Temple-sacrificing, 23% tithe-paying (not 10%), Torah-obedient Jew would have heard? Come and let’s sit in the synagogue, sing some songs of worship, listen to a “good” sermon and go back the rest of the week to pursue our own agenda?

No I don’t think so. As I’ve said elsewhere, the coming of Jesus Messiah meant a call to action for the early church. It meant each and every local church taking up the task of the Messiah and making it their own – his tasks of justice, redemption, restoration and healing – and finding ways to work with other local churches in that same pursuit. It meant a new heart and a new obedience, without a written law to tell us what to do every little moment. It meant being zealous for good works (Tit 4:12), not something to be done grudgingly. It meant “new is creation” (2 Cor 5:17), because version 1.0 of the kingdom of God has begun. The king has been announced, and we are the people he has called to display what future version 2.0 of his kingdom will be like when he returns – bringing the future of good news to the poor, release for the oppressed and family for the fatherless and motherless and rejected forward to today. Even creation is frustrated in waiting for it’s renewal in that 2.0 version (Romans 8:21-22).

We may laugh at the modern day Jerusalem landlords for still expecting a Messiah when one has already arrived the first time, but they may be onto something (albeit fuzzy) about what his return might look like. For us who believe in Jesus the Messiah, are we busy being his kingdom people, or are we are simply just a collection of individuals who have come to hear what may spur us on in our pursuit of self?

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.

The Resurrection of the Jesus the Messiah, and the Task of the Church

Christmas is upon us, and so it seems a bit weird that I’m writing a post about the resurrection of Jesus (maybe I’m in Easter mood 🙂 ), but when you are hit with a great ‘aha’ moment, you either “write it or lose it”. So here I am, writing it. Maybe you’ll see my point, and how that is even related to Christmas.

So here I was, reading a recent blog post by NT scholar Scott McKnight on his Jesus creed blog. He’d been reviewing a certain Mike Birds’s “Evangelical Theology” book, and reiterated something that Mike said in the book – that the resurrection of Jesus is the most neglected chapter in evangelical theology. He referred to the sermons that Peter and Paul gave in Acts 2, Acts 13 and Acts 17 to buttress his point. Now those of you who are familiar with my posts will notice I’ve made a big deal of these passages because these are the first recorded evidence of how the apostles presented what we call “the gospel”. And yet, it seems as human as I am, I had missed something striking in the passage, something which upon further attention, I wonder how I’d missed it.

I know that the dominant mindset regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that it signifies that we will also resurrect in the last day and also go to heaven. But I want to challenge you that the resurrection of Jesus means miles and miles more than that. So just think and read with me as I go along.

 

Acts 2

When Peter was first called upon to defend what had happened on the day of Pentecost, he describes what the prophets had said about the pouring out of the spirit (v 14-21). He then proceeds to talk about the life, activities and miraculous deeds of Jesus, and his death at the hands of the Jews. (v 22-23). But from 24 all the way to 36, he hones in on Jesus’s resurrection, quoting David and saying that Jesus’s resurrection vindicates him as the Messiah that they were waiting for. In effect, the fact that Jesus resurrected from the dead was the good news. Now, maybe you may not see what I’m talking about, but Acts 13 makes it even more explicit.

 

Acts 13

From verse 13 we encounter Paul in a synagogue, invited to speak to the gathering (I guess his credentials as a Pharisee had something to do with that, but that’s just my personal hunch). He accepts the invitation, and begins by recounting the history of the nation Israel, (v 16-22). He then states that the expected descendant of David is Jesus, describes his life, and the events leading to his death (v 23-29). The he hones in on the man’s resurrection from v 30 to 38, and makes a startling statement in v 32 – “We tell you THE GOOD NEWS: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, BY RAISING UP JESUS”. As we all may be aware, the word “gospel” means exactly that – “good news”. And Paul here states exactly what it is – the fact that this Jesus is the resurrected Messiah from the dead.

 

Acts 17

Again, we encounter Paul at the Agora in Athens, and he is trying to put forward his best argument for Jesus amongst the other Gods that the Greek worshiped. It is interesting that he finds himself amongst Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, for those were the worldviews that dominated their lives at the time. From Acts 17:22, Paul tries to make a case for the God of Israel being the one and only God who created heaven, earth and everything within it. He states that this God of Israel intends to judge the earth with justice by a certain man, and the proof of his appointment by God was not by any other means else than by the fact that he is resurrected. “He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead v 31”. With the mention of resurrection, you can see the reaction of the people captured in v 32. Some sneered, but some said they wanted to hear more. It seems then, that Jesus resurrection is truly the real encapsulation of the message of the apostles.

 

What’s With Resurrection?

To The Jew

To the 1st century Jew, who was used to many people calling themselves Messiahs, ranging from Judas Maccabeus (probably the most successful one because of his success in fighting the Syrians, for which the Jews now have the festival Hanukkah today) to Menaheim, to John of Gischala to Simon bar Kochba, none of them had ever died and resurrected. To the Jewish mind, the ultimate enemy was not sin, but rather death. This is also why Jesus Christ talks a lot in the gospels about “life” i.e. he being the giver of life; the way, the truth and the life and many more such statements.

The Jewish hope was that in the age to come, all righteous Jews will be resurrected to obtain their promised inheritance – the kingdom of God. Therefore for someone to claim to be the Messiah, do all the wonderful signs he did as prophesied by the prophets, and to conquer death, the last enemy (even in Revelations 20, death and Hades are the last enemies to be defeated ), this person was truly the Messiah. No wonder then that announcement of the resurrected Messiah was “the gospel”, heralding the beginning of the kingdom of God. It is also not surprising what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:1-8, where instead of simply stating Jesus’s resurrection as he stated the other events of his life, he adds 3 additional verses of evidence to shore up confidence in the resurrection of Jesus.

 

 

To the Gentile

The Gentile world (and the Jewish as well) was ruled by Romans at the time, whose emperors did not fail to announce themselves not only as the kings of the world, but as gods and “sons of gods”.

In fact, Emperor Augustus official title was “Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of God”. After his death, his successor had him officially declared a god, and thence the emperors that followed began demanding worship, not just as king, but as gods. And yet, not one of them, from Augustus to Tiberius to Vespasian to Domitian ever died and resurrected. Not one.

Therefore a King who had died and resurrected, was definitely worth pondering about. For neither Stoicism (which was and is a closer worldview to Christianity) nor Epicureanism (which is much closer to today’s postmodern worldview) were prepared with an answer to a king that had overcome death. This was definitely important, and required either that one accepts Paul’s message and ask for further clarification as some did, or reject it as incredulous as others did. There’s no middle line.

It is also not surprising for the early disciples to use the same word “euangelion” (the greek word for gospel aka good news) and the title “son of God” that the Gentiles used in announcing their king. In fact, there’s also very high suspicion that the disciples were very intentional about their use of the following statement

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” – Peter in Acts 4:12

There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved than that of Caesar” – Augustus Caesar – 27 BC to 14 AD

 

And so what?

After Paul’s long diatribe on the resurrection in 1 Cor 15, he makes a significant statement at the end of the chapter.

Therefore my brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58)

Now what labour is this old man Paul talking about again? I thought resurrection meant we were all getting pimped up to go to heaven, not so? Well, of course that’s true, but that’s only half the story so let’s look at the other half.

 

The Coming of the Messiah not only Means Hope, But also Work for the Church

One of the cardinal hopes of Judaism, especially of 1st century Judaism was that Israel may be the light of the world. As God had promised to Abraham, he will bless them, that through them all nations will be bless (Gen 12:1-3) This expectation is especially captured in Isaiah 60:3, about the glory of Zion

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”(Isaiah 60:3).

And this they prayed for and sang about in their Psalms, displayed in a psalm like Ps 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us – so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations” (Ps 67:1-2).

The confusing bit is that the task of the nation Israel is almost always expected to be the task also of the Messiah, again captured by Isaiah about the “servant of God”.

I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, and a light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6)

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant … I will also make you a light for the Gentiles …”(Isaiah 49:6)

Other tasks of the servant/king/Messiah are documented in the Psalms and Prophets but Ps 72:17 links it directly to the promise to Abraham. That Psalm is probably the most comprehensive statement of the job description of the Messiah in all the Psalms.

Since Jesus explicitly said that the nation Israel had failed to be that light (Mt 5:13-16), he was now constituting a new people who shall share his task (Jn 15, he is the vine, and we are his branches, and other such passages) called his church, just like the Zion was supposed to share the task of their expected servant.

 

This then is the driving force behind Paul’s ministry. He preached a gospel of the resurrected Messiah, and he strengthened the people so converted to be the carriers out of the task of that Messiah, not as individuals, but acting as a nation would – together. This is what then he says in Eph 3:10-11.

His [God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made know to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord”

I posit that this is Pauls equivalent of saying “you (the church) shall be the light onto the nations”

Ok, We’ve Had Enough

Well, I’ve had enough too, because that’s basically the end of my amazement. Of course, I had always complained in previous posts that centering the message of Jesus around forgiveness of sins so we could hold hands and sing kumbaya in heaven was only the quarter of it, but the fact that the kingship of Jesus Christ validated by his resurrection is what was the pivot of the “good news”of our beloved early disciples did shake me myself.

I had read the 800 page “Jesus and the Victory of God” in which NT Wright made the parallel between the task of the Messiah and the task of his people, but I still hadn’t made the connection between resurrection and the gospel, and why that was the basis of their confidence. Because if strengthened and emboldened by the resurrection of their messiah the task of the Messiah becomes the task of the church, then faithful Christians are those who, working with others in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, pursue the Messiah’s task, not their personal agendas.

And this also is why Paul wrote his epistles. Not as love letters to be read by “me, myself and I”, but as guiding principles that a people who everywhere together represent the Messiah, shall think and act together that they truly shall together, be the light to the world. The task of shining a light, the task of justice, the task of relief to the poor, the task of self-sacrifice, the task of relieving the oppressed and the many other tasks described in places like Ps 72, Isaiah 61 etc is not mine, neither is it yours. It is ours, and we the church must be busy about that task. If not, we have acted like Israel – we want the blessings, that we may spend them all on ourselves and not extend it to the Gentiles. But the worst part is if we choose to devolve it to individual activity. For then, the task is totally not achievable.

But when we’ve truly been busy at the task, then we can sing joy to the world, because we have indeed brought joy through our king. For his coming is indeed “good news”.

Interpreting the Bible – Lessons I Have Learnt

Many people sometimes wonder how I come to certain conclusions in my articles about Christianity, because I seem to be interpreting the bible in different ways to arrive at different positions than most have always had. So I decided to write this down as a bit of an explanation of what I’ve learnt in my short life reading the bible and being a Christian, and how that has influenced what I’ve written, taught and lived over the years, and what I’ll be writing, teaching and living going forward. If there’s one thing I know though, applying these lessons to the way you look at the word of God will change your life, as it has mine (and will make you less susceptible to all the numerous deceptions blowing to and fro every day). So I’ll start with some that I’ve mentioned already elsewhere, and move to some more difficult terrain.

 

Lesson 1: Chapters and Verses

The chapters and verses in the bible are not “inspired”. They are man-made, an effort began by a certain Prof. Stephen Langton of the University of Paris in 1227. God didn’t put the chapters and verses there. Therefore it is possible that these demarcations may prevent you from seeing the full picture that the divine inspirer of Scripture himself intended that the authors of the books of the bible communicate. As a result, the mantra has been “never read a bible verse on its own”. This I think is the number 1 sin of most Christians with regards to the bible, and we seriously need to repent from this attitude. We need to ensure we read whole chapters to get the full meaning of what is being said, not pick individual verses and twist them to our delight. Examples of such abused passages are Jer 29:11; Ps 105:15; 3 John 1:2;

 

Lesson 2: Audience and Context

The second lesson I learnt was that it was important to know who the audience of a book is, and what motivated the writing of the book. This is of huge importance when we look at the New Testament, especially the Epistles (of Paul, of Peter etc.). In the first century when Paul wrote his letters, they were meant to be delivered to churches, not to individuals (except letters like Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus etc). These letters were read and deliberated upon when everyone was gathered at a meeting, and the Apostles knowing this was the practice always addressed themselves to the church, not to a person. Unfortunately, our individualistic culture today has inadvertently worked to erase this corporate nature of the epistles, and we read it with a “letter to me” mindset every day (as someone said, they are not God’s “love letters” written to us). And for English speaking readers the matter is further aggravated because we don’t have a different word for the plural “you” and the singular “you”. And therefore every occurrence of “you” is taken to be “me”, not “us”. A clear example is Col 1:27, where the phrase “Christ in you” should be read in our minds as “Christ in us”, not “Christ in me”.

 

Lesson 3: It’s contains Stories about Israel and God

Lesson 2 becomes increasingly important when we begin to see what the Bible is truly about – how God intends to save the world through a people called Israel. God’s intent has always been that Israel will be blessed, and the nations of the world will be blessed through them, that Israel will be the light that shines for the nations of the world to see (these are mostly what the NT calls “promises”). Jesus coming and his work sought to show that Israel had failed in that task, and that he was now creating a new people in whom those promises of God will be fulfilled i.e. the church of God. This is what Paul says is the mystery of Christ in Eph 3:10-11  – “His [Gods’] intent was that now, THROUGH THE CHURCH, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (my emphasis). Therefore the Apostle’s ministry was centered on how “the church” as a people will stand out, not necessarily how “I” as an individual will. It is the same as God desired that Israel as a nation will stand out, not necessarily how a particular prophet or citizen of Israel e.g. “David” as a person will. If we don’t get that the bible is about Israel’s destiny (and therefore the church’s destiny), the current winds of individualism, consumerism, selfishness etc. will drown us, because we’ll only look at the bible as some motivational tool for “quick verses” to pursue our personal ambitions, instead of seeking to understand the story of Israel, and how the church together can achieve it.

 

Lesson 4: Worldview is Critical to Understanding the Bible

There is a phrase I grew up with in my life and always believed till now, but which I now find inadequate – “Scripture must interpret scripture”. One of the hardest and rudest awakenings that I had to humbly accept at some point was that without an understanding of the worldview of the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the bible, I will definitely get some things wrong, no matter how much I apply the principles above, no matter how much I want scripture to interpret scripture. For me it was ok if I didn’t pay attention to the right principles of exegesis (interpretation of the word), and got it wrong. But this thing called worldview was totally new to me. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When my old car used to give me a lot of trouble, I would take it to the mechanics, and when they told me I needed to buy a spare part, they always preferred to buy a second hand one (what we call “home used” parts) instead of brand new ones. I never understood this, until I realized later that they recommended this because our spare parts importers were more interested in profits than in solving customer’s problems, so they imported inferior and cheap replacement parts, and sold it at exorbitant prices. Therefore the mechanics had lost faith in the supposedly “brand new” parts, and preferred parts from chopped down cars which were brought from Europe and US.

Now imagine that I’d kept good records of all my repair activities, and I was dead and gone and my grandchild came upon these records. They’d realize that their grandfather always had receipts for “second hand” parts, and they’ll probably come to the conclusion that their grandfather was a miser who preferred to buy “home used” instead of brand new, when in his day brand new parts always worked the best.

This is the problem that ignorance of my worldview and that of the mechanics in my time has brought to my grandson. The reasons behind my actions, he doesn’t understand. He only analyzes what he sees on paper, what he sees in text.

This is the same challenge we are confronted with today. Its 2000 years since Jesus Christ, and all we have as records of him is the bible. And yet we are very confident and cocksure that with the text alone (aka Sola Scriptura), we can understand the people of Israel, Jesus and the 1st Century Christians very well so that we become experts at interpreting the bible. But we forget that a lot of water has passed under the bridge, and we are better off acknowledging our deficiency and beginning a search into their worldview to understand them, before we even attempt to interpret what we see on paper.

And so my world has been rocked to the core by my personal studies in New Testament history and historians, who have moved me off my lazy bum and who are challenging me to acknowledge my ignorance, to sit up and open up to learn more. Until yours is rocked in this way, I’m sure you will be very satisfied with what you know, probably to your own peril.

Let’s go on to 2 more seemingly disturbing facts about the bible and its interpretation.

Lesson 5: The Bible Itself Has Changed

Knowing that we always defend the word of God as “same yesterday, today and forever”, I’ll advise you not to freak out just yet with my above lesson, but read along with me. The Bible has indeed changed over the centuries, and for good reason. Let me explain how it has changed.

The versions of the Bible we have are always written from translations of handwritten copies (or manuscripts) that we have obtained over the centuries. Because the manuscripts were handwritten (because the printing press was invented in the 16th century), the copiers make mistakes, or sometimes intentionally or unintentionally add content that they feel should have been added to the manuscript at their discretion. Therefore, to get the best translation, it is important to use the oldest manuscript, since it will have less errors and “insertions” than the latter ones. And so here is Prof. Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, on the subject.

“Despite what fundamentalist will have us believe that the King James Version of the bible dropped from the sky onto us in 1611, it [the Bible] was not written in English, but in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. It was not written in Western tones, nor in user friendly language for Western peoples. It was a Middle Eastern product … [but] the good news is this. We are closer today to the original text of the NT than at any time in the previous 18 and half centuries. Why? Because today we have over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek NT, just a 100yrs ago, there were only 300 to 400 known copies of the manuscript. “

 Now I know some people who religiously defend the KJV as the only usable, “correct” bible interpretation. All I can say to them is that relying on a bible translated from only 400 manuscripts which are 10th century copies of copies of copies, rather than one based on 5000 manuscripts ranging from as eaerly as 2nd, 3rd and other earlier centuries is pure and unadulterated folly. So, if you are truly serious about a clearer, truer interpretation of the bible, take my advice and find a more recent one. I know some people’s churches even go ahead to print their own version of the KJV and put their names on it, but I’m sorry, that ship sailed a long time ago, and you better get with the times.

 

Lesson 6: The Bible Alone is not Enough

Now I’m definitely going to be hanged for heresy for saying this, but again let’s wait till I unveil my argument before you stone me like the Jews stoned Stephen.

Since the Reformation, we Protestant Christians (non-Roman-Catholics) have always sworn by the statement that “The Bible is all we need to know the Truth” and that any Tom, Dick and Harry should be able to pick it up and by the “the Holy Spirit’s guidance”, be able to understand it. This doctrine is typically referred to as “Sola Scriptura”. And yet, it seems this insistence on “bible alone” has rather led to more divisions in the Protestant church than any other branch of Christianity, and there’s no end to this canker. Interestingly, those who led the separation from the Roman Catholic Church themselves came to the conclusion even before their death that this was an untenable position, yet we their ancestors still hold to our tunnel vision on this subject. Hear Christian Smith concerning the foremost leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther.

“Martin Luther himself assumed that the Bible clearly demonstrated the theological beliefs he championed. However, as the Reformation began to spin out of control (in his viewpoint), he backed away from the perspicuity of only one “correct” view and said ‘I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from Scripture that beer is better than wine”. (Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible).”

One of the easiest trick questions I’ve tried to use to draw people’s attention to this problem is 1 Cor 14:34 – “ Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”. I typically ask the question “where in the law does it say so”, and I’m yet to receive a satisfactory answer to that question. This is because this is not specified anywhere in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), which is what most Christians know as “the law”. However, scholars like John Zens will point out clearly to you that this is contained in the Talmud, or the oral traditions of the Jewish people which they also held in quite high esteem alongside the Torah.

Now, in what way is “Sola Scriptura” able to answer this question, without invalidating itself? Should we not be opening our minds to the fact that this “bible alone” mantra is a dead one (and has been dead for 500 years since the originators themselves gave up on it?). Are we not limiting ourselves in the ways in which the Holy Spirit can use us in pursuit of the kingdom of God?

 

Lesson 7: The Gospel is not as Simple as the 4 Spiritual Laws

I have spoken at length on this subject, so I’ll leave this for another day.

 

Conclusion

There’s much more lessons I’ve learnt that I’d like to share, but we don’t have all the time. Suffice it to say that these leave me feeling quite worried for those who choose to live their Christian lives by feeding on daily devotionals (Daily Manna, Daily Bread, Rhapsody of Realities and such. Seriously?). I feel quite worried for those whose Christianity revolve around TV evangelists (who are so many I won’t bother naming). I feel extremely harangued by those who only listen to and live by what their pastors have taught them. I also worry for the Christian apologist and evangelists who continue not to see the monumental impact of worldview analysis of the life and times of Jesus to the message we preach about him, continuing in the old mold of “come and receive Jesus for forgiveness of sins so you can go to heaven”. It’s so 1611.

Today we have much clearer knowledge of the Bible, of Jesus and of the early Christianity, but we are more satisfied with the quick fix that will give us prosperity, wealth, and emotional satisfaction. Contemplative, questioning and thinking Christian are a rare species, and yet we think we are “free” and the rest of the world is “enslaved”.

If we are going to grow in Christ (and be faithful to him and his purpose for the church), we have to go beyond these comfort zones. My worry is that the literate Christians amongst us who can show the way are sitting in comfort drinking the Kool-Aid, how much more the illiterate amongst us, whom we have a huge responsibility to guide into the truth from the many false sharks around us.

 I can’t end without a quick note from Ben Witherington on this subject

“I once had a student approach me in frustration. He came from the more Pentecostal end of the spectrum and he was one of those people who actually considered too much learning about and of the Bible and its contexts as possibly getting in the way of being a good preacher.  He said to me “I don’t know why I need to learn all this stuff, I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.” 

My response was “yes you can do that, but it’s a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with. Don’t use the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device.” (Ben Witherington, “The Problem with Preaching- Pt 3“)

 

 

 

 

 

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.