Ccontinung this series of posts, I’m writing about the Gospels as literature, and as religious ‘tracts’ designed to confirm to believers, and to persuade non-believers, that Jesus is the Son of God, Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the World, and that their contents should be understood as having been selected and shaped with that in view.
In the 1st post in the series, I looked at Matthew’s (doubtless unconscious) use of the ‘Hero’ archetype in writing about Jesus. After responding positively to a herald’s ‘call to adventure’, and then ‘entering the wilderness’ to successfully complete a time of testing, Jesus the Hero emerges with a charismatic ‘message’ for his world to hear. Jesus’ immediate ‘world’ was that of his fellow Jews, in Roman occupied 1st century Palestine, and this fact must be held in our minds. Jesus was most certainly not a 21st century, white, western European, middle-class male.
He was a ‘man of his time’, and that time (the last 2 centuries BCE, and 1st 2 centuries CE) saw a succession of what we call “apocalyptic” Jewish writings. It was the ‘in thing’. Early on, we have the Book of Daniel, with its succession of “huge beasts” rising out of heaving, storm-lashed seas. This continues with the apocalypses of Enoch, Ezra, Baruch and others, appears in the Dead Sea scrolls of the Qumran community, and is found in the teachings of John the Baptist, Jesus, the letters of Paul, and the Book of Revelation.
It’s in this contemporary apocalyptic context, and not that of later re-interpretations and/or repudiations of it, that we must begin our understanding of the message of Jesus. At the start of his mission, he’s said to have summarised it as, “The time has fully come, and the Kingdom of God is close at hand : repent, and believe this good news.”
The “Kingdom of God” would have been understood by most, if not all, of his hearers, as the coming to pass of the Jewish Bible’s prediction of the moment when God would intervene in the world, forcefully and dramatically, to finally destroy all his enemies and all powers of evil ; gather together the lost and scattered 12 tribes of Israel ; resurrect and pass judgement on the dead ; rebuild his Jerusalem Temple and restore Israel to the long-lost glory of King David’s days, with God’s promised Messiah at its head ; and see the Gentile nations acknowledge Israel’s God as the one and only God, and join the Jewish people in coming to his Temple to worship him. It’s a magnificent and breath-taking vision!
Jesus, the Gospels tell us, taught that this was going to happen within the lifetime of his hearers. This was the reason for his urgent call for people to ‘repent’ – to change their outlook and ways, and get themselves right with God – worshipping only him with all their hearts, and loving their neighbours as themselves. This is why some of his teaching seems unrealistically and impractically extreme – giving up everything, even jobs, wealth, homes and families, rather than allowing them to get in the way of getting ready. There’s nothing to be gained by ‘saving up’ for a future that’s about to be totally changed, especially if it’s a future in which God will supply every need of those who are his, with no more pain, sorrow, want, illness or death. This was no doubt a wonderfully joyful and exciting message for some, but disconcertingly radical and extreme for others.
We need to explore this further, but in the meantime, Christians should perhaps have a clearer understanding of why there continue to be Jewish people who don’t accept the idea that Jesus was their promised Messiah. None of the promises have been delivered on. The power of evil has not been destroyed ; the 12 tribes of Israel have not been restored ; the dead have not been resurrected ; the Temple has not been rebuilt ; Israel has not been restored as ‘the Kingdom of God’ on earth ; and among the Gentile nations the malignancy of anti-Semitism continues on its vile and vicious course. For the Jewish people, their Messiah has yet to arrive.
Let’s see where we can go to from here …..