I received this question about how people can believe Jesus was the promised Messiah:
I am very non-denominational due to the fact that most religions have so much contradictory information. I would have to say my beliefs are that of Judaism, but my mother is always trying to convince me that the only way to God is through Jesus. The problem is that she cannot give me any explanation as to why I should believe Jesus was the Messiah when in fact he never fulfilled the prophecy that God stated in the Old Testament.
I truly want to follow the right path and could be easily persuaded to believe another religion but no one has been able to answer this for me: If God said that his Messiah would be a great political leader, would bring peace to the world, would rebuild the temple and reunite the Jews, then why do Christians believe Jesus was that Messiah? The only answer I have been given is that I guess Jesus promised to fulfill the prophecy in his 2nd coming. But if God said, "this is how you will know the messiah" then am I obligated to accept Christ until he completes what God said he would? God said this is how I will know him right? So if he hasn’t done it, then how can I go against Gods word to beware of false prophets. Jesus didn’t fulfill the prophecy and yet millions of people follow him anyway.
Please make me understand. Is there simply more I am missing? I am skeptical, but don’t want to be. I only seek the truth.
Thanks for your obviously sincere question, friend! Your attitude of ‘open-minded and seeking skepticism’ is commendable, and will no doubt serve you well in your search for truth.
The way I would like to approach your question is to look at the messianic “options” available to first century Jews, in interpreting the messianic prophecies. There were many, many strands of messianic teaching in the OT/Tanaach (and even more in later rabbinic theology!), and it is in the various attempts at integrating and harmonizing these strands that this issue actually arises.
So, let’s dig in…
A. The first thing to note is that the OT/Tanaach teaching about the messiah ‘assigned’ Him a very large number of roles!
[Note: all of the above roles and titles are ascribed to one or more messianic figures in the ancient Jewish literature—NONE of these are ‘Christian-only’ roles.]
B. Next, note that some of these seem to contradict one another.
C. Let’s look at possible ways to ‘resolve’ some these tensions/contradictions:
Assuming we believe the Scriptures, which the first century Jews did, we have essentially three live options in resolving such contradictions:
1. The two contrasting descriptions/roles apply to TWO DIFFERENT “messiahs”
2. The two contrasting descriptions/roles are each CONDITIONAL, meaning that only one will actually occur (the other being precluded by the circumstances)
3. The two contrasting descriptions/roles apply to the same messianic figure, but will be fulfilled in DIFFERENT times (or circumstances)
D. Let’s see these in action:
Option 1 (two different messiahs, at least) is most visible in the situation of dealing with the death of the messiah. Later Judaism came up with TWO Messiahs—a Messiah, son of David and Messiah, son of Joseph. A good summary of this is found in MTJL:165ff:
“Messiah ben Joseph, also called Messiah ben Ephraim, referring to his ancestor Ephraim, the son of Joseph, is imagined as the first commander of the army of Israel in the Messianic wars. He will achieve many signal victories, but his fate is to die at the hands of Armilus in a great battle in which Israel is defeated by Gog and Magog. His corpse is left unburied in the streets of Jerusalem for forty days, but neither beast nor bird of prey dares to touch it. Then, Messiah ben David comes, and his first act is to bring about the resurrection of his tragic forerunner.
“Scholars have repeatedly speculated about the origin of the Messiah ben Joseph legend and the curious fact that the Messiah figure has thus been split in two. It would seem that in the early legend, the death of the Messiah was envisaged, perhaps as a development of the Suffering Servant motif. A prophecy of Daniel, written about 164 B.C.E., is the earliest source speaking of the death of a Mashiah ("Anointed") sixty-two (prophetic) weeks after his coming and after the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Dan. 9:24-26). While it appears that Daniel had a temporal ruler in mind, whom he calls Mashiah Nagid ("Anointed Prince"), some two centuries later, the author of 4 Ezra unmistakably refers to the Messiah, belief in whom had developed in the meantime, when he puts words in the mouth of God to the effect that after four hundred years (counted from when?), MY son the Messiah shall die (4 Ezra 7:27-30).
“When the death of the Messiah became an established tenet in Talmudic times, this was felt to be irreconcilable with the belief in the Messiah as the Redeemer who would usher in the blissful millennium of the Messianic age. The dilemma was solved by splitting the person of the Messiah in two: one of them, called Messiah ben Joseph, was to raise the armies of Israel against their enemies, and, after many victories and miracles, would fall victim to Gog and Magog. The other, Messiah ben David, will come after him (in some legends will bring him back to life, which psychologically hints at the identity of the two), and will lead Israel to the ultimate victory, the triumph, and the Messianic era of bliss.
“This splitting of the Messiah in two persons, which took place in the Talmudic period, achieved another purpose besides resolving the dilemma of the slain Messiah. According to an old tradition, the Messiah was perfectly prefigured in Moses. But Moses died before he could lead the Children of Israel into the Land of Promise. Consequently, for the parallel to be complete, the Messiah, too, had to die before accomplishing his great task of ultimate Redemption. Since however, the Messiah would not be the True Redeemer of God if he did not fulfill that ultimate task, the only solution was to let one Messiah, like Moses, die, and then assign the completion of the work of Redemption to a second Messiah.”
[Also, the Dead Sea Scrolls testify to the Qumran Community’s belief in TWO messiahs: one priestly, and one royal—to resolve a different ‘tension’ within the messianic strands in the OT.]
Option 2 (complimentary and conditional descriptions) can be illustrated from the donkey-versus-clouds tension. The Talmud has this interesting passage at b. Sanh 98a:
“R. Joshua ben Levi cited two verses that seemed mutually contradictory. One verse says, ‘And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven’ (Dan. 7:13), while the others says, ‘[Behold, they king cometh unto thee]…lowly, and riding upon an ass’ (Zech. 9:9). However, the two verses declare: If Israel are meritorious, Messiah will come ‘with the clouds of heaven’; if not, he will be ‘lowly, and riding upon an ass.’”
Notice that this option (although not present or suggested in the biblical text), makes the prophecies conditional—depending on Israel’s righteousness at the time of Messiah’s approach—and therefore the conflict is resolved by one side NOT being ‘fulfilled’ at all.
Option 3 (two different comings of the same messianic individual) can be seen in the understandings of the earliest Jewish believers in Jesus.
· The death of the Messiah was reconciled with the victory/eternal life of the messiah via the resurrection of the Messiah (preserving both prophecies, without having to “split” the messiah in two).
· The donkey-versus-clouds tension is resolved by having the ‘donkey’ one happening at a different time than the ‘on clouds’ one. But again, notice both are preserved and both are fulfilled by the same person.
E. Before we assess these different options, notice that all three approaches would create the same problem for you/us: why would you accept ANY messianic figure that DIDN’T fulfill ALL the prophecies.
· In Option 1, why would you/we believe in Messiah ben Joseph (who came much earlier than Messiah ben David), since he obviously didn’t fulfill the promises of military victory over the Gentiles (instead he was killed and defeated!)? And, why would you/we accept Messiah ben David, since he obviously didn’t fulfill the promise of being killed?
· In Option 2, why would you/we believe in a messiah who came ‘on clouds’, since he DIDN’T fulfill the prophecies of coming ‘on a donkey’, or vice versa—indeed, he wasn’t even supposed to do them both, since they were conditional and mutually-exclusive (in this option)?
· In Option 3, why would you/we believe in a messiah who fulfilled only the first-appearance prophecies, since He wasn’t even supposed to complete the others until later?
So, if you
are going to accept the premise of early Judaism that the Scripture is
trustworthy in its recording of God’s messianic promises, then you are going to
be faced with the same problem no matter what
approach you take. What this means, friend, is that the Messiahship
of Jesus cannot be thrown out on the basis of currently unfulfilled messianic
prophecies—this situation exists within Judaism as well.
Notice, though, that the problem is basically
about two different sets of messianic
prophecies: one set describes a Rejected/Brutalized Messiah, and the other set
describes a Victorious/Acclaimed Messiah.
Most of us are aware of the prophecies about the Victorious/Acclaimed Messiah
(some of the items you mentioned in your question would be members of this
set), but some people are less aware of the Rejected/Brutalized Messiah strain
in the OT/Tanaach. So, before we get into evaluating the different options of
harmonizing the Rejected Messiah strain with the Acclaimed Messiah strain, let
me point out a few of the more well-known passages, and indicate from ancient
Jewish literature that those passages were understood by THEM as being
messianic as well.
· The ‘stone of stumbling’ in Isaiah 8.14 (and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare. 15 Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured.), closely related to Ps 118.22 (The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone) was applied by Jesus to Himself (Mr 21.42) and by the leaders of the early Jewish believers, Peter (Acts 4.11 and 1 Pet 2.7,8) and Paul (Eph 2.20). This passage is understood in the same way in b. Sanh 38a (Soncino):
”Judah and Hezekiah, the sons of R. Hiyya, once sat at table with Rabbi and uttered not a word. Whereupon he said: Give the young men plenty of strong wine, so that they may say something. When the wine took effect, they began by saying: The son of David cannot appear ere the two ruling houses in Israel shall have come to an end, viz., the Exilarchate, in Babylon and the Patriarchate in Palestine, for it is written, And he shall be for a Sanctuary, for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both houses of Israel. Thereupon he [Rabbi] exclaimed: You throw thorns in my eyes, my children! At this, R. Hiyya [his disciple] remarked: Master, be not angered, for the numerical value of the letters of yayin is seventy, and likewise the letters of sod: When yayin [wine] goes in, sod [secrets] comes out.
· Psalm 16 has the famous ‘resurrection of David’ passage (because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. V.10) which is applied to Jesus’ death-and-resurrection by Peter in Acts 2.27 and Paul in Acts 13.35. The Midrash treats a couple of phrases in this Psalm as being messianic; here is one comment on verse 5 (from Midrash Rabbah, Gen. 88,5):
Corresponding to these the Holy One, blessed be He, will give Israel to drink
four cups of salvation in the Messianic future, as it says, O Lord, the portion of mine inheritance and of my
cup, Thou maintainest my lot (Ps. XVI, 5);.
· The Servant passages in Isaiah (esp. 52-53) depict a suffering, dying, rejected, and scorned (by Israel) Messiah. I have demonstrated elsewhere that this was a common Jewish understanding of this passage from very early on, but messianic interpretations of this passage persisted in Judaism for centuries and centuries. Compare this passage from Midrash Konen (no earlier than the 11th century AD, cited in MTJL:114f):
“The fifth house [in the heavenly Paradise] is built of onyx and jasper stones, and inlaid stones, and silver and gold, and good pure gold. And around it are rivers of balsam, and before its door flows the River Gihon. And [it has] a canopy of all trees of incense and good scent. And [in it are] beds of gold and silver, and embroidered garments. And there sit Messiah ben David and Elijah and Messiah ben Ephraim. And there is a canopy of incense trees as in the Sanctuary which Moses made in the desert. And all its vessels and pillars are of silver, its covering is gold, its seat is purple. And in it is Messiah ben David who loves Jerusalem. Elijah of blessed memory takes hold of his head, places it in his lap and holds it, and says to him: "Endure the sufferings and the sentence of your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Israel." And thus it is written: He was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities (Isa. 53:5)-until the time when the end comes….And every Monday and Thursday, and every Sabbath and holiday, the Fathers of the World [i.e. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] and Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, and the prophets, and the pious come and visit him, and weep with him. And he weeps with them. And they give him thanks and say to him: "Endure the sentence of your Master, for the end is near to come, and the chains which are on your neck will be broken, and you will go out into freedom."…And even Korah and all his company entreat him every Wednesday and say to him: "How long until the miraculous end? When will you bring us back to life and bring us up again from the depths of the earth (Ps. 71:20)?" And he says to them: "Go and ask the Fathers of the World." And they are ashamed and return to their place. [Notice here, by the way, that (a) the suffering messiah is the Son of David figure(!); and (b) even with two messiahs, they STILL have a ‘wait time’—the Messiah suffers for a long time before his ultimate, miraculous victory…remind you of Someone? (smile)]
· Zech 11.4-14 refers to the Rejected Good Shepherd, which was understood to refer to the betrayal/conspiracy against Jesus by the religious elite and Judas. Verse 12—the famous ’30 pieces of silver’ passage is explicitly ascribed to the messiah (but with a very odd meaning for the passage!) by late Judaism in Midrash Rabbah, Gen. 98,9f:
“R. Hanin said: Israel will not require the teaching of the royal Messiah in the future, for it says, Unto him shall the nations seek (Isa. XI, 10), but not Israel. If so, for what purpose will the royal Messiah come, and what will he do? He will Come to assemble the exiles of Israel and to give them [the Gentiles] thirty precepts, as it says, And I said unto them: ye think good, give me my hire; and if not, forbear. So they weighed for my hire thirty pieces of silver’ (Zech. XI, 12)” [note: Israel doesn’t even need the Messiah to teach them…(smile)]
· The Pierced Messiah of Zech 12.10ff is specifically discussed in the Talmud in at least two places:
“It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son; …[b. Sukkah 52a]
found a Scriptural verse and expounded it: [52a] And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house
of David apart, and their wives apart … What is the cause of the
mourning [mentioned in the last cited verse]?—R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on
the point. One explained, The cause is
the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, … [b.
So, we can see that there is a very definite (and traditional) set of passages that speak of a messianic figure that suffers, dies, is rejected, is reviled, is scorned, is ‘sacrificed’. So, whatever understanding of the messiah we come up with, it will have to do justice to this set of messianic descriptions.
G. Now, what are the strengths and weakness of the three options? How might we assess their relative credibility, in terms of their fidelity to the scripture?
Option 1 (multiple messianic figures) has the advantage of allowing every single messianic prophecy be completely true (by ascribing dissonant ones to different messianic figures, e.g. David, Elijah, Aaron, various prophets, Ezra, or even the entire nation of Israel). The obvious difficulty with this view is that there is generally no textual warrant for it, or textual evidence to support it. The texts never seem to distinguish between a Messiah, Son of David and a Messiah, Son of Joseph at all. And there are major complications of having two messiahs (for example): after Messiah ben David raises Messiah ben Joseph from the dead, which one fulfills the rest of the messianic functions? How do the two interact in the Messianic kingdom on the earth? But the main problem with it, of course, is that it is without biblical support.
There is the additional difficulty of how the “abused” messiah is to be recompensed. OT theology strongly asserts that the Righteous Sufferer not only is recompensed, but recompensed ‘wildly’ by the Covenant God. If the Acclaimed Messiah “gets all the glory and reward”, what is the suffering messiah supposed to get? [Notice that if the two figures are the same, and a resurrection is the ‘bridge’ between the two, then the problem is wonderfully solved—the Suffering One is rewarded for his suffering, with exaltation, dominion, and glory.]
Option 2 (conditional and/or complimentary fulfillments) has the advantage of recognizing that many prophecies ARE conditional, as taught in Jeremiah 18 and illustrated in the preaching of Jonah against Ninevah. This, in a messianic context, is sometimes appropriate as well, as can be seen both in the rabbinics and in the words of Jesus.
· From the rabbinics:
“R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai's tomb. He asked him: ‘Have I a portion in the world to come?’ He replied, ‘if this Master desires it.’ R. Joshua b. Levi said, ‘I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.’ He then asked him, ‘When will the Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ was his reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’ — ‘At the entrance.’ And by what sign may I recognise him?’ — ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [them] all at once, and rebandage them together, whereas he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], thinking, should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].’ So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘peace upon thee, Master and Teacher.’ ‘peace upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he replied. ‘When wilt thou come Master?’ asked he, ‘To-day’, was his answer. On his returning to Elijah, the latter enquired, ‘What did he say to thee?’ — ‘peace Upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he answered. Thereupon he [Elijah] observed, ‘He thereby assured thee and thy father of [a portion in] the world to come.’ ‘He spoke falsely to me,’ he rejoined, ‘stating that he would come to-day, but has not.’ He [Elijah] answered him, ‘This is what he said to thee, Today--if ye will hear his voice.’ [B. Sanh 98a. The Soncino version gives the footnote: “Ps. XCV, 7, thus he made his coming conditional-the condition was unfulfilled.”]
Note that the messiah’s coming, in this passage, was conditional upon the receptivity of Israel (or of its representative, in this case).
· From the words of Jesus:
“And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; 12 but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.” (Matt 17.10)
Note that Elijah had come (in the person of John the Baptist), but because Israel had failed to recognize/chosen not to receive him, he would have to come AGAIN later, to fulfill the rest of the forerunner ministry. Notice Jesus also likens Israel’s response to Himself, to this same behavior of Israel.
So, this option can be legitimate, but unfortunately, it won’t solve our problem at all—for the promises of world leadership, world peace, etc. could be conditional as well, and without textual clues as to this being the case in any specific passage (although many of the passages of promise DO require a righteous Israel), it would be entirely unwarranted, as with Option 1.
Option 3 (different comings/occurrences/events, but the same messiah) has a big advantage in not “needlessly multiplying messiahs” (thank you Ockham) and yet still allowing all/most the prophecies to be taken as to-be-fulfilled. So, it has the greatest likelihood of being faithful to the biblical text, as it stands and as it is naturally interpreted, but it has the disadvantage of requiring the difficult task of sketching out a vision of the Messianic career, in which ALL of these at-tension elements fit naturally and logically together.
The chronological approach (i.e., the events occur in a sequence, perhaps separated by periods of time, and these events are somehow logically related to occur in this sequence) is how the early Jewish Jesus movement understood the data, as taught to them by Jesus. [Of course, the chronological approach is ALSO used in Option 1, as should be obvious from the fact that M.b.Joseph was killed BEFORE M.b.David ‘saved the day’…so a chronological approach is not at all illegitimate, or even a Christian-only approach.]
Jesus consistently taught His disciples (or TRIED to teach them!) that His ministry required suffering/obedience to God before he would be enthroned and exalted. It was a fundamental framework in His self-understanding as the messiah:
“He asked them, “What are you discussing with each other as you’re walking along?” They stood still and looked gloomy. 18 The one whose name was Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened there these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They answered him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet, mighty in the things that he did and said before God and all the people, 20 and how our high priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and had him crucified. 21 But we kept hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel. What is more, this is now the third day since these things occurred. 22 Even some of our women have startled us! They were at the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body there, so they came back and told us that they had actually seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. 24 Then some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see him.” 25 Then Jesus said to them, “O how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe everything the prophets said! 26 The Christ had to suffer these things and then enter his glory, didn’t he?” [Luke 24.17ff. Notice that He specifically repudiates the theology that the ‘good part’ was supposed to come first!]
From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. 22 And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” 23 But He turned and said to Peter,“Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” (Matt 16.21f)
He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ was to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. [Luke 24.46f]
And the early Jewish believers in Jesus finally understood, that the messianic glory was supposed to FOLLOW the messianic obedience/suffering:
But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ should suffer, He has thus fulfilled. 19 “Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; 20 and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, 21 whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. 22 “Moses said, ‘The Lord God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed in everything He says to you. [Peter, in Acts 3.18ff…notice how the first coming of Jesus procured the availability of forgiveness of sins for Israel, and that once Israel would have accepted that forgiveness, the Lord Jesus would return a second time to ‘restore all things’. This is a perfectly logical progression, of course: provide basis for forgiveness, Israel changes her mind and is cleansed from sins, and then God sends the Royal Messiah to deliver the covenant blessings.]
Even the prophets, who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours, carefully researched and investigated this salvation. 11 They tried to find out what era or specific time the Spirit of Christ in them kept referring to when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. [Peter, in 1 Peter 1.10ff…suffering first, glory second—as earned by the obedience and trust of the sufferer.]
They traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia and came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As usual, Paul went in and on three Sabbaths discussed the Scriptures with them. 3 He explained and showed them that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. He said, “This very Jesus whom I proclaim to you is the Christ.” [Paul, in Acts 17.1ff]
I have had help from God to this day, and so I stand here to testify to high and low alike, stating only what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Christ would suffer and be the first to rise from the dead and would announce light to our people and the Gentiles.” [Paul, in Acts 26.22ff...Paul saw this progression in the OT: Christ would suffer, then be the first to receive (through actual merit of obedience and law-righteousness) the blessing of resurrection, and then, on the basis of that covenant-based New Life, would proclaim truth to the world—to usher in the victorious end-times.]
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Phil. 2.5ff…Paul here argues that the exaltation of Jesus by God was based on Jesus’ obedience and submission under the Law to the Father. Obedience—even to death, the ultimate test of faith/loyalty—before Exaltation.]
But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor [Author of Heb 2.9, the coronation/exaltation of Jesus was ‘earned’ through Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s will in His sacrificial death. Obedience/Completion of mission, then honor…”before honor comes humility” (Proverbs 18.12; 22.4)]
H. Now, it should be somewhat obvious at this point that Option 3 would seem to do a better job at tying the two ‘sets’ of messianic descriptions together (and in the process seems to have fewer problems). But what order of the events should we expect—suffering first, or leadership first?
There are several reasons to believe that the humble/rejected/suffering events should precede the exaltation/coronation events:
First is the obvious cultural/political reason: it wouldn’t make much sense for the Messiah to first be acclaimed, bring in the Future Kingdom and world peace, reestablish the Davidic throne, and THEN be rejected, abused, and killed by Israel and the Gentiles! It makes much more sense to expect the reverse: an initial rejection of a humble, common-folk messiah, followed by a later recognition, acceptance, and national exaltation—leading to the Davidic Kingdom-Future.
Second, we have actual textual data to support this order (unlike, remember, the other options)—some of the very ‘suffering’ passages suggest a reversal-of-fortune for the Rejected Sufferer, and often are explicit in their statements of future exaltation. Two particularly vivid ones would be:
‘death and resurrection’ passage is very clear on this—the dead messianic figure
would literally be raised from the dead before corruption occurred (e.g., 72+
hours in the grave, according the Jewish tradition at the time)
· The Isaiah 53 passage is also explicit—after the sacrificial death of the Messianic Servant, He is raised to the ‘light of life’ and given “victor’s spoils”:
After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Third, there are theological reasons why it makes sense to have the Messiah ‘start with’ humility and suffering, BEFORE proceeding to glory and abundance:
· To prepare the Messiah for an effective High Priestly ministry, who can succor/sympathize those who are suffering (a la the argument in Hebrews 2.14ff and 4.15):
Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. 16 For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. 17 Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. (Heb 2.14f)
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4.15)
Someone who started out ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’ might not be as adept at this…(smile)
· To demonstrate to the leadership of Israel what a TRUE Shepard of the people was to be like—one that didn’t ‘lord it over the people’, nor live in religious elitism and arrogance (Cf. Lk 18.9; Jn 7.47)
· To actually BE the ordination sacrifice (New Passover) for the New Covenant—as Jesus himself understood His death as (e.g. 1 Cor 11.25). The problem that Israel had in the OT/Tanaach (according the Prophets) was that they needed ‘new hearts’—the old ones were stiff, hardened, and rebellious. The New Covenant (Jer 31) promised them ‘new hearts for old’ and would insure that Israel could bring in the New World. But the New Covenant needed a basis for the ‘their sins and iniquities I will remember no more’, and that was what the death of Jesus (as Is 53-type sacrifice) was all about. Once the TRUE sacrifice (not animals!) was made, then God would be “free” to offer non-merit-based forgiveness and righteousness to any Israelite, and the blessings of all the covenants (including those with benefit streams for the gentiles) would begin to flow! Accordingly, we would NEED the death of the messiah (as sacrifice) before any major New Covenant blessings (including the pure and godly Kingdom of Israel) could accrue. This would make the initial suffering role to be catalytic, in a big way, and therefore PRIOR TO the ‘big blessings’ and glories.
Fourth, it fits the overall thrust of OT day-to-day ethics—‘testing before blessing’ and ‘humility before honor’ and ‘obedience before reward’ and ‘loyalty before deliverance’.
Fifth, it would fit the historical patterns of OT prophets/heroes better. Suffering ‘first’ had always been the “Jewish way” in the OT/Tanaach, from pre-King David who was persecuted by the current Israelite king Saul, to the constant stream of OT prophets, who were consistently rejected at their first appearance in history (only to be ‘acclaimed’ much later in Israel’s history). Jesus refers to this reality in Luke 6.22ff (“How blessed are you whenever people hate you, avoid you, insult you, and slander you because of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for your reward in heaven is great! For that’s the way their ancestors used to treat the prophets”) and in Luke 13.34ff (O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones to death those who have been sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you didn’t want to! 35Look! Your house is left to you deserted. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘How blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’). And Stephen, in Acts 7, points out the same truth: “Which of the prophets did your ancestors fail to persecute? They killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers”. Stephen’s speech, of course, points out that the Jewish leaders of Moses’ time rejected him at first, and yet God had established Moses’ as their leader, and later Israel ‘acclaimed’ him fully.
What this means is that there is good support for Option 3--the Suffering experiences of Messiah occurring PRIOR TO the Exaltation experiences—from a broad class of arguments (i.e. cultural/political, biblical text, OT/Tanaach theology, OT exemplary ethics, historical patterns).
I. So, if Option 3 is a better way of resolving the tension between the Suffering Messiah data and the Triumphant Messiah data, how was a first century Jew supposed to know that Jesus was the Messiah? If the miracle/glorious stuff was “scheduled for later”, then what reason would a first-century Jew have for accepting Jesus on this first appearance in history?
There was a background timing reason that would help ‘restrict our search’ to this time period, and there were basically two reasons that were available to the Jewish generation of Jesus, and one additional reason for both that generation and for the wider world:
The first was a timing one—current expectations about the messiah (from prophecies of Daniel and others) placed the coming of the messiah in this period (although they were said to refer to the Roman Emperor Vespasian, as opposed to a Jewish messianic figure!!!!). The ancient world was well acquainted with the expectations of the Jewish people of the day, and this shows up in several ancient historians:
· "The majority firmly believed that their ancient priestly writings contained the prophecy that this was the very time when the East should grow strong and that men starting from Judaea should possess the world. This mysterious prophecy had in reality pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, as is the way of human ambition, interpreted these great destinies in their own favour, and could not be turned to the truth even by adversity"; trans. C. H. Moore, Tacitus III (LCL 249; London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University, 1931) 199.
· "There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome, as afterwards appeared from the event, the people of Judaea took to themselves; accordingly they revolted . . ."; trans. J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius 11 (LCL 38; London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University, 1914) 289.
· "Now portents and dreams had come to Vespasian pointing to the sovereignty long beforehand ... and Nero himself in his dreams once thought that he had brought the car of Jupiter to Vespasian's house. These portents needed interpretation; but not so the saying of a Jew named Josephus; he, having earlier been captured by Vespasian and imprisoned, laughed and said: 'You may imprison me now, but a year from now, when you have become emperor, you will release me ... ; trans. E. Cary, Dio's Roman History VIII (LCL 176; London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University, 1925) 259-6 1. Cf. Josephus, J. W. 3.8.9 §399-408. [This was said to be a prophecy by Josephus, in correspondence with public Jewish expectation.]
And the ancient rabbinic writings of the second through fourth centuries AD indicated that they KNEW that the expected time for the Messiah had come and gone…
· "Rav said: All times set for redemption have passed, and the matter now depends only on repentance and good deeds" (All time calculations had been fulfilled). B. San 97b
· "R. Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: Blasted be the bones of those who presume to calculate the time of redemption. For they are apt to say, 'Since redemption has not come at the time expected, it will never come.' Rather, one must wait for it...what then delays its coming? The measure of justice delays it..." B. San 97b
This factor, of course, would not point someone to Jesus, but should cause us to look in this time period [i.e., from the “last” messianic prediction in Malachi (c.4th century BC) to the 2nd century AD] first and foremost for the promised Messiah. We could, though, adduce the evidence from John the Baptist, who was accepted by most of the Jews as being a major prophet. If the biblical accounts of the baptism of Jesus by John are historical (or contain an adequate core of historical material), then his identification of Jesus as the messianic figure (e.g., Lamb of God, Coming One) would have been adequate reason for many Jews of the time (cf. John 1.35ff).
The first evidential reason people of that time would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah would have been that the character of His miraculous works fit the profile of the Coming One.
Jesus gave numerous indications of His messianic status, but two particularly explicit incidences stand out.
First, in Matthew 11, John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus (from prison) asking about his messianic status:
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
Jesus here points out the character of his ministry—a ministry of freedom/healing to the disadvantaged and the outcasts. This is a reference to a specific messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
And to a related one in Isaiah 35.5f:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
The reason this is so significant is that 8 of Jesus’ reported miracles were cures of the deaf/dumb/blind/lame, and that these types of miracles were unprecedented in Jewish culture (pagan temples claimed to have some of these done, but never in Jewry). These were unprecedented and were expected to occur ONLY IN the messianic age. And so the common Jew of the day was amazed at these signs that the Kingdom was somehow ‘already present’:
The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. (Matt 15.31)
So much of Jesus’ ministry was to the marginalized in Jewish society, looked down upon by the reigning religious elite, and for this Jesus was sometimes scorned by the elite—“he eats with sinners’ was a particular denunciation of Him. The true Davidic King would care for the poor and needy, and this is where Jesus focused His ministry and miracles. Israel was relatively devoid of miracle workers at the time, and Jesus stands alone in this aspect of His ministry. [“The Talmud records some minor miracles from the Second Temple Period, but Jesus’ power was unrivalled.” NT:DictJG, s.v. “Authority and Power”]. This alone would constitute strong evidence to the Jews of His day.
Secondly, in Matthew 12.28, Jesus points out that His particular power over evil is a sign that He is the Kingdom-carrier:
But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
This probably refers to the absolute authority (as opposed to magical techniques and rituals) with which He commanded evils spirits to leave His people alone. So NT:DictJG again:
“The Jews practiced elaborate rites of exorcism (see Tob 6:7–8; Josephus Ant. 8.2.5 §§45–47; cf. Mt 12:27 par.), but Jesus is able to silence demons and cast them out with a terse command (Mk 1:21–28).
Witherington summarizes the connection between these exorcisms and evidence that Jesus was the kingdom-carrier:
“These exorcisms are not just random examples of God’s help to the suffering, but herald the breaking in of the eschatological reign of God…Jesus sees his miracles as bringing about something unprecedented—the coming of God’s dominion. Note that Jesus interprets God’s reign in terms of changed human lives, not cosmic or political change. He sees himself as one who is bringing in and bringing about change within the lives of individual human beings so that they can relate to God and others as God intends them to do…Fitzmyer suggests that Jesus is contrasting his power with that of magicians; Jesus performs these exorcisms without the aid of such things as charms, rings, incantations.’ [NT:COJ:164,165, 202]
These two remarks by Jesus show His consciousness (and therefore, His claims) of His messianic role. He was the Sent One/Coming One, commissioned by God to carry the kingdom to the individual lives of the Jewish folk of the time. His miracles—not for show, but for ministry and as evidence that the “kingdom was there, walking about in Jesus”—were powerful evidence to the people of His day. And many of the common folk responded, but the religious leadership responded in the old historical pattern of rejection:
At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come. 31 Still, many in the crowd put their faith in him. They said, “When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man?” 32 The Pharisees heard the crowd whispering such things about him. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees sent temple guards to arrest him. (John 7.30ff)
The second evidential reason the Jews of His generation would have accepted Him as Messiah (but only after His death, obviously) was that His resurrection was an indication of His messianic status.
The importance of Jesus’ resurrection can only be seen by placing it against the context of the Jewish first-century hope of the resurrection. Jewish hope, at the time, was for the resurrection of the righteous—at the end of the age, at the coming of Messiah. God would vindicate the Jewish nation, by raising them from the dead, according to Daniel 12. The resurrection was therefore an end-time event.
This expectation can be seen even in the dialogue between Jesus and Mary about Lazarus in John 11.23:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies
Jesus was somehow claiming to be the “last day” incarnate—He was the kingdom-in-the-flesh, so to speak.
The power of Jesus’ resurrection to the Jews of the day (especially rabbi Saul of Tarsus) was that it wasn’t supposed to happen so soon…N.T. explains the logic of this and its power in transforming Rabbi Saul into the Apostle Paul [NT:WSPRS:36-37]:
“The significance of Jesus' resurrection, for Saul of Tarsus as he lay blinded and perhaps bruised on the road to Damascus, was this. The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time. Saul had imagined that YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Instead, he had vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hand of the pagans. Saul had imagined that the great reversal, the great apocalyptic event, would take place all at once, inaugurating the kingdom of God with a flourish of trumpets, setting all wrongs to right, defeating evil once and for all, and ushering in the age to come. Instead, the great reversal, the great resurrection, had happened to one man, all by himself. What could this possibly mean?
“Quite simply, it meant this: Jesus of Nazareth, whose followers had regarded him as the Messiah, the one who would bear the destiny of Israel, had seemed to Saul rather to be an anti-Messiah, someone who had failed to defeat the pagans, and had succeeded only in generating a group of people who were sitting loose to the Torah and critical of the Temple, two of the great symbols of Jewish identity. But the resurrection demonstrated that Jesus' followers were right. In his greatest letter, Paul put it like this: Jesus the Messiah was descended from the seed of David according to the flesh, and marked out as the Son of God (i.e. Messiah) by the Spirit of holiness through the resurrection e the dead (Romans 1:4). The resurrection demarcated Jesus as the true Messiah, the true bearer of Israel's God-sent destiny.
“But if Jesus really was the Messiah, and if his death and resurrection really were the decisive heaven-sent defeat of sin and vindication of the people of YHWH, then this means that the Age to Come had already begun, had already been inaugurated, even though the Present Age, the time of sin, rebellion and wickedness, was still proceeding apace. Saul therefore realized that his whole perspective on the way in which YHWH was going to act to unveil his plan of salvation had to be drastically rethought. He, Saul, had been ignorant of the righteousness of God, ignorant of what YHWH had been planning all along in apocalyptic fulfillment of the covenant. The death and resurrection of Jesus were themselves the great eschatological event, revealing God's covenant faithfulness, his way of putting the world to rights: the word for 'reveal' is apokalypso, from. which of course we get 'apocalypse'. Saul was already living in the time of the end, even though the previous dimension of time was still carrying on all around him. The Present Age and the Age to Come overlapped, and he was caught in the middle, or rather, liberated in the middle, liberated to serve the same God in a new way, with a new knowledge to which he had before been blind. If the Age to Come had arrived, if the resurrection had already begun to take place, then this was the time when the Gentiles were to come in.
This was a life-changing perspective, but one that meshed with our first evidential reason above—the miracles of Jesus that indicated the presence of the “End times” within the life/actions of Jesus were consistent with the miracle of His resurrection, as indication that the End Time was somehow inaugurated right in the middle of the “present times”. The resurrection of Jesus was therefore ‘too early’ to be the ‘normal’ type of resurrection, but was rather a powerful indication that Jesus was the “firstfruits” of the dawning Messianic age (cf. I Cor 15.20ff: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”)
To the Jews of the day—even a stubborn one like Rabbi Saul—this resurrection would constitute overwhelming evidence that the promised Messiah had appeared, and was beginning to ‘infiltrate’ the present evil age, with the coming age of love, glory, righteousness, and peace.
One additional evidential reason for that generation to see Jesus as the Messiah, was that the promises of the New Covenant (to be ushered in by the Messiah) could be seen to be a reality in the lives of the early Christians. And this applied to later generations as well.
Without going into too much detail on the New Covenant, let me point out some basic aspects of it, as promised in Jer 31.31ff (and other places):
It began with forgiveness of sins and resulted in
obedience, as opposed to the ‘old’ covenant, in which obedience was supposed to
result in forgiveness of sins.
2. It dealt with the internalization of the Law—it was to be ‘written on/in the heart’—as opposed to the external written Mosaic Code. One commentator on this passage summarized well the problem that the New Covenant was intended to remedy (WBC, in. loc.):
“The metaphor of the heart also shows how the internal impediment to the perfection of the covenant relationship will be overcome. The conviction that having the Lord’s word in or on one’s heart prevents sin and fosters obedience is found in various places in the OT (e.g., Pss 40:9[Eng. 8]; 119:11; Deut 11:18). The heart stands for the mind, the organ of memory (Jer 3:16), of understanding (Deut 29:3 [Eng. 4] ), of ideas (Jer 23:16), and, especially, of conscious decisions of the will (Jer 3:10; 29:13). Only God is able to discern what is in an individual’s heart (Jer 17:9–10). The metaphor of writing on the heart is found one other place in Jeremiah, in 17:1. The hearts of the people of Judah are depicted as tablets that require the hardest writing instrument. The inscription on them is not the Lord’s instruction but the people’s sin, the commitment of their will against the Lord. The Lord was far from their hearts (12:2). Their “hardness of heart,” is also evident in Jer 13:10; 23:17. Such people can no more start doing good than a leopard can change its spots (13:23). In the context of Jeremiah, only the metaphors of surgery (4:4) and of writing by God’s own hand (31:33 can overcome their stubbornness and prepare them for loyal obedience.
3. It was designed to break the ‘religious monopoly’ of an arrogant elite (WBC again), with emphasis on the common folk and marginalized:
“Knowledge of God will extend to all ages and classes. The phrase “from the least to the greatest of them” sums up a list of people from children to the very aged in Jer 6:11–13. Although it lacks this phrase, Jer 5:1–5 serves as background because it describes a situation that will be eradicated by this promise: neither poor nor rich “know the way of the Lord or the law of their God.” The same phrase, but without pronominal suffixes, describes the lay participants in the covenant renewal led by Josiah in 2 Kgs 23:2 (cf. the list in Deut 29:9–10[Eng. 10–11]). Both Martens and Brueggemann call attention to the absence of a religiously privileged elite.
It’s ‘newness’ was visualized in Ezek 37 as resurrection
and new life, via the Spirit of God.
5. It was deeply ‘individualized’: whereas Deut 30 had spoken of the ‘heart’ (singular) of the generation, the New Covenant deals with ‘hearts’ (plural) of everyone.
6. As a means for producing true righteousness, it would result in a classless and inclusive society and worshipping community, and would yield the greatest benefit of the Law: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”
These elements of the New Covenant were hallmarks of Jesus’ earthly ministry and teaching, of course:
1. His association with ‘sinners’ and emphasis on faith as the starting point with God is well known, and was a source of controversy with the religious authorities of the day.
2. His emphasis on the heart/inward person as the central issue (e.g., Mk 12.30-33) is well documented.
3. He clearly picked the marginalized as disciples (e.g., women, common Galileans, tax-collectors) and examples (e.g., lepers, women, the poor), and set the role model for servant-leadership (cf. John 13).
4. He referred to the kingdom relationship with God as being “dying to self’ and “new birth” and “living water” and ‘resurrection’.
5. Jesus is well known for His focus on individuals, as opposed to groups. He was trying to create a righteous Israel (deserving of the Covenant Blessings) one Israelite at a time…
6. His teachings on love as the highest principle of the Law, and His teachings (and example) on Inclusiveness extended to even non-Jews (e.g. the Good Samaritan, the ‘other sheep’ of John 10.16, and His apparent acceptance of even “Greeks” in John 12.20, will demonstrate the ‘human panorama’ intended by the New Covenant).
And in the early (esp. pre-Constantine) church, the followers of Jesus demonstrated the promised fruits of the New Covenant—their meetings and ‘membership’ was characterized by classless acceptance, hearts that were known for joy and freedom in worship (proof of the New Birth and the implanted Law), and whose works of love and compassion were noted even by its bitterest enemies.
The Apostle Paul had taught about this classless new society aspect, and observed this early: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.(Gal 3.28) and this was seen in the early demographics of the Jerusalem church:
Fiensy [BAFCSP:226ff] lists some of the various classes of folk known to be in that early group:
1. The Wealthy or Semi-wealthy (Simon of Cyrene, Barnabas, Ananias & Sapphira, Mary mother of John Mark, Manaen,
2. The lower class (some of the disciples, James)
3. Ordinary temple priests (but not from High Priestly family)
4. One Levite (Joseph Barnabas, Acts 4.36)
5. Submerged classes (e.g. beggars, impoverished widows, and healed people)
6. Women of various classes
7. Hebraists (Jews who spoke both Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek) and Hellenists (Jews who only spoke Greek).
8. Pharisees (Acts 15.5)
Even the “leadership” was open to all. The first extrabiblical mention we have of the early church is in the letter from Pliny the Younger to Trajan (c. 112, Epistle 10.96.8) on how to deal with the Christian group composed of 'many of all ages and every rank and also of both sexes" in Bithynia (south of the Black Sea). He had tortured their leadership, which according to him, were female slaves…Although the early Jesus movement was largely an urban, merchant-class group, it welcomed people from all ethic, political, and socio-economic backgrounds. The egalitarian dream of the New Covenant and Messianic Age was being realized (and demonstrated) in this group of followers of Jesus the Messiah.
The righteousness of the implanted Law (cf. James 1.21 and 1 Peter 1.23) was visible to all. The Roman physician Galen, giving his observations about the small Christian groups in his day (the latter part of the second century), described their lives as those in pursuit of virtue:
“For their [Christians] contempt of death and of its sequel is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all through their lives; and they also number individuals, who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.” [cited in CRST:80]
But by far, it was the love of Christians for one another and for even “outsiders” that bore witness to the life of God in their hearts. The social relief programs initiated by this tiny group, especially in dealing with the frequent plagues of the times, were powerful initiatives of love. For example, in the great plague of the third-century century—in which between one-fourth and one-third of the entire population of the Roman Empire likely died(!)—the Christians were out ministering to the sick and dying.
Rodney Stark, writing as a sociologist (in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, see ROC:76ff) describes the radical nature and motivation of Christian response to plague. Let me cite at length a few of the data elements he analyzed, starting first with a Christian bishop Dionysius, writing an Easter letter describing the scene::
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.... The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.
“The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.
Dionysius’ account is not at all a self-serving one—the great physician Galen fled the epidemic in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a common ‘reasonable’ response to plague.
But the Christians took care of their own, and others. So much so, in fact, that the anti-Christian emperor Julian—who hated the ‘Galileans’ intensely—had to admit the effectiveness of their care. Stark notes:
“There is compelling evidence from pagan sources that this was characteristic Christian behavior. Thus, a century later, the emperor Julian launched a campaign to institute pagan charities in an effort to match the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their “moral character, even if pretended,” and by their "benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead." In a letter to another priest, Julian wrote, "I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence." And he also wrote, "The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us". Clearly, Julian loathed "the Galileans." He even suspected that their benevolence had ulterior motives. But he recognized that his charities and that of organized paganism paled in comparison with Christian efforts that had created "a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services". By Julian's day in the fourth century it was too late to overtake this colossal result, the seeds for which had been planted in such teachings as "I am my brother's keeper," "Do unto others as you would have them do onto you," and "it is more blessed to give than to receive". Julian's testimony also supported the claim that pagan communities did not match Christian levels of benevolence during the epidemics, since they did not do so even in normal times when the risks entailed by benevolence were much lower. “
Stark actually attributes part of this to Christian teaching—as derived from Jesus’:
“Here issues of doctrine must be addressed. For something distinctive did come into the world with the development of Judeo-Christian thought: the linking of a highly social ethical code with religion. There was nothing new in the idea that the supernatural makes behavioral demands upon humans--the gods have always wanted sacrifices and worship. Nor was there anything new in the notion that the supernatural will respond to offerings--that the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. What was new was the notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural. The Christian teaching that God loves those who love him was alien to pagan beliefs. MacMullen has noted that from the pagan perspective 'what mattered was ... the service that the deity could provide, since a god (as Aristotle had long taught) could feel no love in response to that offered"... Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another. Moreover, such responsibilities were to be extended beyond the bonds of family and tribe, indeed to 'all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 1:2). These were revolutionary ideas.
“Pagan and Christian writers are unanimous not only that Christian Scripture stressed love and charity as the central duties of faith, but that these were sustained in everyday behavior. I suggest reading the following passage from Matthew (25:35- 40) as if for the very first time, in order to gain insight into the power of this new morality when it was new, not centuries later in more cynical and worldly times:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me .... Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.
“When the New Testament was new, these were the norms of the Christian communities.
Indeed, the Christians were aware of how God drew others to the reality and truth of their message via these lives-of-love: Tertullian claimed: "It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. 'Only look,' they say, 'look how they love one another!"' (Apolog 39).
Harnack had long ago noted this, when he quoted the duties of deacons as outlined in the Apostolic Constitutions to show that they were set apart for the support of the sick, infirm, poor, and disabled: 'They are to be doers of good works, exercising a general supervision day and night, neither scorning the poor nor respecting the person of the rich; they must ascertain who are in distress and not exclude them from a share in church funds, compelling also the well-to-do to put money aside for good works" (1908: 1:161).
The point should be clear at this point: the evidence for the arrival of the New Covenant (the inauguration of the Messianic age, although still ‘inside’ regular history) was crystal-clear in the love of the early followers of Jesus. For those not able to see Jesus in the flesh, they could see His character and power and compassion in the lives of His disciples.
So, the generation of Jews at the time of Jesus had some strong evidence that Jesus fit the description of the Kingdom-bringer, and therefore was the Messiah. But, as we have noted earlier, the historical pattern of ‘initial resistance’ to God’s prophets and messengers would predict that this figure would then prove to be the Rejected/Suffering Messiah.
J. “Okay, so I see how the Suffering experiences of the Messiah needed to precede the Exaltation experiences of the Messiah, but why couldn’t the Exaltation experiences have IMMEDIATELY followed the resurrection?”
Actually, they probably were intended to do so…
After Jesus ascended to heaven, and sent the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost—as the means of facilitating the “in-dwelling” of the Law—Peter’s second sermon made that specific offer to Israel:
“And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance like your leaders. This is how God fulfilled what he had predicted through the voice of all the prophets—that his Christ would suffer. Therefore, repent and turn to him to have your sins blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and so that he may send you Jesus, the Christ whom he appointed long ago. Heaven must receive him until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through the voice of his holy prophets. In fact, Moses said,
‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to everything he tells you. Any person who will not listen to that prophet will be utterly destroyed from among the people.’
“Indeed, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who followed him, also predicted these days. You are the descendants of the prophets and the heirs of the covenant that God made with your ancestors when he said to Abraham, ‘Through your descendant all the families of the earth will be blessed.’, When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning every one of you from your evil ways.” [Acts 3.17ff]
Notice that Peter specifically claimed that:
1. Israel’s repentance would result in the “times of refreshing”
2. Israel’s repentance would result in the second “sending” of Jesus the Messiah
3. This Jesus was waiting in heaven (after an earthly life as ‘Jesus’) until the “time of universal restoration”.
4. Jesus was sent FIRST to Israel, to bless them by helping them to renew their spiritual condition.
The rabbinic passages we looked at earlier indicated an awareness that Israel’s repentance had to precede the coming of the Glorious Messiah (see above), and the OT prophets said that Israel’s repentance had to precede it also. Indeed, the rabbinic passages from the Talmud indicated an awareness that the time had passed, and that the full-glory kingdom was being delayed because of Israel’s lack of social justice. To repeat them here:
"Rav said: All times set
for redemption have passed, and the matter now depends only on repentance and good
deeds" (All time calculations had been fulfilled). B. San 97b
· "R. Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: Blasted be the bones of those who presume to calculate the time of redemption. For they are apt to say, 'Since redemption has not come at the time expected, it will never come.' Rather, one must wait for it...what then delays its coming? The measure of justice delays it..." B. San 97b
This passage from Acts offers a gracious ‘second chance’ to the Israel of the day (“Similarly, 3:20 simply urges that, in spite of its rejection of Jesus, Israel may yet partake in the fulfillment of messianic hopes by recognizing in Jesus its only true Messiah” [NT:DictJG, s.v. “Christ”] and “OT hope and expectation is not dead, as Acts 3:20–21 also makes clear. Jesus will return to fulfill the rest of the promise, a promise that will show itself visibly on earth to all humanity, as well as in the eternal benefits given to believers.” [NT:DictJG, s.v. “Luke, gospel of”]).
And it is in this sense that the ‘conditional nature’ of the Glorious Advent is true—the delay in the Second Coming of the Messiah, for the ultimate ‘restoration’ of all things, is due to the mal-response of Israel to the first coming of Her Precious One. Knowing of His impending rejection, Jesus commented on this only a few days before His rejection and crucifixion:
When he came closer and saw the city, he began to cry over it, saying, “If you had only known today what could have brought you peace! But now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days will come when your enemies will build walls around you, surround you, and close you in on every side. They will level you to the ground—you and your children within you. They will not leave one stone on another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time when God came to help you.” (Lk 19.41ff)
Of course, not all Israel rejected Him (or we wouldn’t have any of the New Testament documents—since most/all of them were written by first-century Jewish believers in Jesus!), and those that accepted Him (remember, from a wide variety of Jewish social/religious strata, including religious leaders) experienced the “localized” and community-expressed benefits of the New Covenant.
So, technically speaking, the Glorious Return of the messiah COULD have occurred immediately after the resurrection, but it was (as the OT taught and as Jewish teaching recognized) dependent on Israel changing her mind about Jesus, about truth, and about social justice…
Accordingly, I think the Christian understanding of the data from the OT/Tanaach, when compared with the details of Jesus’ words and actions (as recorded by the Jewish followers and writers of the New Testament) is a very reasonable one, and is actually a better one than other explanations of the relationship between the Suffering/Rejected messianic figure and the Victorious/Acclaimed messianic figure.
I encourage you to study/think/pray through the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus and ask yourself if it would have been reasonable, for those around Him then, to accept Him as the promised kingdom-bearer (given that the glorious advent was to be contingent on Jewish response and obedience to God).
I hope this helps at least some, in your pursuit of God’s truth about the Messiah…keep your heart open, and your will committed to truth…
November 14, 2000