Rethinking Jesus (05) Apocalypse Now

If we’re to understand Jesus the Jew, in the context of first century Palestine, we have to give attention to the appearance of Apocalypses, from around 200 BCE to 200 CE. During that time, there were Jewish apocalypses, supposedly written by Enoch, Zephaniah, Ezra and Baruch etc. Apocalyptic writings were also included in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Bible, the first Apocalypse was in the book of Daniel. In the New Testament, there’s Jesus’ small apocalypse in Mark 13. Paul makes his apocalyptic contribution in 1 Thessalonians 4, and then there’s the Bible’s last book, ‘The Revelation’ according to John. So, apocalypticism was very much an ‘in thing’.

Apocalypses arose from the experience of defeat, devastation, exile and associated pain, disillusionment and despair suffered by God’s ‘chosen people’. Their orthodox ‘theology’ said their suffering was due to their failure to fully obey God’s Law. If they mended their ways, things would change, and they’d prosper. Unfortunately, it wan’t so simple and clearcut, and books such as ‘Job’ and ‘Ecclesiastes’ challenged such orthodoxy. It seemed that good people got a raw deal, while bad people prospered. Apocalyptic thinking addressed this problem.

It was dualistic. There were powers of good versus powers of evil. There was God versus the Devil, angels versus demons, and heaven versus hell. There was no neutral ground or, as Jesus put it, “Whoever is not with me is against me”. There were also two epochs in Time. In the first, still in operation in Jesus’ days, for unknown reasons, God allowed the powers of evil to control much of the world. This was the real reason why the good suffered and the bad prospered. 

God, however, was about to bring that first epoch to an end, by finally stepping in to destroy the Devil and his powers of evil, as well as all who, actively or passively, supported them. Everyone, however, who’d been obedient to God, (including those among the dead raised for judgement), would be rewarded with a place in the new, earthly Kingdom of God, while the rest would be destroyed. All people in the end, therefore, whatever their life experience, would receive their just deserts. As Genesis 18:25 had said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” – even if that had taken such a long and, for some, traumatic time.

God’s people Israel had suffered greatly. The ten northern tribes had been ‘lost’ due to exile in Assyria. The two remaining tribes had been similarly dealt with by the Babylonians, but their successors, the Persians, allowed a remnant to return to Judea and rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. Nonetheless, the Jewish people continued to be dominated, first by Egypt, then by Syria, and now by the Roman Empire.

John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all believed the great reversal was on the point of happening. The skies would open, and God would send his angelic host into combat with the Devil’s legions. In charge of events on earth would be God’s appointee, known either as the ‘Messiah’ or ‘Son of Man’. The present occupiers of God’s “promised land”, the pagan Roman Empire, would be destroyed. The dead, including the “lost tribes” of Israel would be raised for judgement, and all the faithful would enter the Kingdom of God on earth, centred on Jerusalem and its reconstituted Temple. 

Good people still remaining from among all the other nations, would then see, beyond any doubt, that the Jewish God was the Universal God, and would join the Jewish people in worshipping him alone. There would then be an epoch of peace and plenty. As we’re told in “The Revelation” chapter 21, “There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things will have disappeared”.

In my view, if we are to understand Jesus the first century Palestinian Jew correctly, we must rid ourselves of our own world view. We must understand that Jesus’ view of things was very different from ours. He simply did not think the same way in which you and I think, and we must try to deal with him on his own terms, not on ours.

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