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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
- 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).
- 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
- 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)
- 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.
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?