In a previous post, I wrote about Jesus agreeing with the teaching of John the Baptist, joining his movement, and being baptised by him in the river Jordan. John, however, was arrested and executed. Jesus formed his own movement, and continued with the same teaching, which is summed up near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel – “The time promised by God has come at last. The Kingdom of God is very near! Turn away from wrongdoing, and believe in the Good News!”
1st century Jews would have approved of the fact that the “Good News” wasn’t about Jesus himself, but about the Jewish God and his Kingdom, and they’d have known what, “The time promised by God” meant. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah predicted a time when God’s special people Israel, having for centuries been defeated, exiled and ruled over by others, would be ‘restored’ – gathered together again – and all their enemies defeated. What would have made this especially exciting, would have been Jesus’ declaration that, “this generation will not pass away before all these things happen.” In his own lifetime, and therefore in theirs, the promised Kingdom would be established and all enemies defeated.
For those numbered among his followers, what a disaster it must have been when, all too soon, they saw Jesus arrested and executed by those very same enemies, without any Kingdom having made its appearance. If they’d heard his dying question, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, it would have cut them to the quick.
It’s in keeping with all of this, that Jesus declared his mission to be solely to “the lost sheep of Israel” – he made no mention of a Gentile church. On the contrary, the prophet Isaiah had further predicted that once God had established his earthly kingdom, centred on Jerusalem and its Temple, all the other nations, seeing this happen, would then know that the God of Israel was the one, true God, and would join in worshipping him at his Temple. The triumph of the Jews would lead to the conversion of the Gentiles!
What’s so ironic, is how this idea came to be turned upside down. The Apostle Paul regarded himself as the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’, and launched a corresponding campaign of conversion. He believed that “once the full number of the Gentiles has come in, all Israel will be saved.” The triumph of the Church, in other words, would be followed by the conversion of the Jews, rather than the other way around!
If Jesus were to return today, I have the idea that he might well be greatly ‘taken aback’ by the existence of a Church named after himself, and also be deeply grieved by what has happened to his own Jewish people – the many centuries of anti-semitism, culminating in the Holocaust.
Isn’t this a very strange old world?