The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 3)

A couple of days ago Sam asked about the reason we would look at Jewish messianic expectations from the Second Temple Period as background for understanding the Kingdom of God. His point was that the Jews misunderstood Jesus completely, so “…why would we look to their understanding of what the Kingdom of God was supposed to be about? Wouldn’t it be likely that they missed on that, too? Jesus’ life and mission turned on its head everything they were looking for in Messiah. Why would it be different with ‘the Kingdom of God’”?

I found this an intriguing question especially since reading N. T. Wright one might get the impression that the Jewish leaders had a great many things correct and only slightly misunderstood Jesus announcement that he was the Messiah.

One possible way to answer this objection is to properly understand Judaism in the first century. Like modern Christianity, there were less things that “all Jews agree on” that might be expected, and hopes for a future Kingdom and the role of the Messiah in that kingdom were quite varied. I often hear people say things like, “all Jews thought that the messiah would be a military leader who would attack Rome.” I suppose that is true for some Jews, but not all. At Qumran the Essenes appear to have expected a “military messiah,” but also a priestly messiah who would be like Aaron. This view was not “normative” for all Jews, but probably a minority position.

Pharisees seem to have expected a Messiah, certainly they are the most interested in Jesus’ talk about the Kingdom in the Gospels. It is likely that the Psalms of Solomon reflect the view of the Pharisees. Psalm 17 serves as an indication of messianic expectations which were current only shortly before the time of Jesus. Rome is viewed as a foreign invader who will be removed when the messiah comes. If these sorts of messianic expectations were popular in Galilee in the 20’s A.D. then we have good reason to read Jesus’ teaching as intentionally messianic and we are able to understand some of the confusion and disappointment among the Jews who heard him teach.

I might even speculate that the ideas in PsSol. 17 are the motive behind Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. If Judas was thinking something like what we read in PsSol. 17 then it is possible he was trying to “force Messiah’s hand” into striking out against Rome and the Temple establishment. Jesus seemed to be claiming to be the Messiah, but he did not seem to be the davidic messiah expected in Psalm 17.

On the other end of the scale would be the Sadducees, a group that (as far as we know) had no messianic expectations. The fact that they limited their canon to the Torah also limited their expectations of a future restoration of the Davidic kingdom. What would a Sadducee think when Jesus announced “the kingdom of God is near”? Perhaps that was enough to identify him as Pharisee or an Essene, and therefore not very interesting.  (I would guess that the Herodians were even less interested in a coming kingdom, since any Jewish messiah would probably start their judgment with a thorough smiting of Herod and his family.)

This is all to say that there was a wide range of belief about Messiah, Kingdom, restoration of David’s rule, or a future reign of God in the Judaism of the Second Temple Period. Sam is right to wonder about the use of this material, but I think it serves to show that Jesus did not fit neatly into any first century conception of Messiah or Kingdom, which is exactly why audience struggled to understand him, both disciples and enemies.

I really am not sure he fits very neatly into contemporary theological categories either.

17 thoughts on “The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 3)

  1. Thats the thing about “Biblical” theology, it does not always fit into neat category, but one thing for me anyway, the Salvation History and Covenant/covenants are first “Israel’s”, and then torwards the Gentiles, (Rom. 15: 8-9, etc.) WE can see now sadly the great Gentile Apostasy!

  2. I believe that one thing that we do as humans is try to categorize everything, we try to understand Jesus perfectly. Because Jesus is God, we cannot do this because God is beyond our rational minds.
    “’I and the Father are one.’ Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ ‘We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man claim to be God.” (John 10: 30-33 (NIV))
    However, this does not mean that we should not study God because it is impossible to completely understand him. Studying the Jewish expectations helps to explain not only the Jews reaction to Jesus teachings, but why he taught the way he did as well. Not all of the Jews rejected Jesus as the messiah an example of this is the Bereans. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11) Even though the Jews had many different opinions, they had the prophecies from the Old Testament that proclaimed a Messiah. I think the second coming is what many Jews (not all) thought would happen when the Messiah came.

    • “we cannot do this because God is beyond our rational minds.” Maybe but he gave us reason and rational thinking. It is entirely possible that God makes perfect sense and that our minds can grasp aspects of his revelation, especially if he intended us to understand him! I do not think that you would take it this far, but why would God make us this way and then not allow our reason to grasp something about correctly?

  3. I also wonder if looking at the four people Wright mentions in chapter nine (Judah, Simon, Herod, and Simon Bar-Giora) can create more confusion in a way. After reading the stories of these four men, I can see that there were many ‘false hopes’ and misleading people in that time. These people would gain reputation and a following crowd that believed in them, but in the end they only ended up being a big disappointment as they failed to lead Israel into the victory they had been so long waiting for. I imagine that these people might have even skewed the views and beliefs of what the messiah would look like. After so many ‘false hopes’, Jews in that day may have forgotten what to expect of the true Messiah.

    I also find it interesting that many Jews came to believe that Jesus was also a ‘false hope’. “Subsequent Jewish tradition came to regard Jesus too as a liar who had deceived God’s people, leading them astray with false hopes” (Wright 116). Some thought that since Jesus also died and nothing seemed to happen, that He too was a false hope like the other men. Of course, we know that is not true. The expectations they had for Him were incorrect so when He did not do what they thought He would, the people rejected Him as Messiah.

  4. Scott has a great point. The question then rather isn’t why would we apply Jesus’ as Messiah to these contexts or views if they might have had it wrong, but rather what aren’t we applying Jesus as Messiah to all contexts, cultures, and expectations. Understanding different expectations allows us better our explanations. Although we can’t necessarily fit Jesus into these different categories of expectancy, it can bring us to the realization that God is bigger than that. Isaiah 55:6-9 says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
    Whether or not we can understand how or why Jesus came when He did as He did and did or didn’t meet our expectations doesn’t really matter. The main point and fact is that He did come and saved the world. There the problem lies, many groups as well as we today can’t believe He came and was the Messiah unless He fits into OUR expectations, OUR understandings. I believe that is half the beauty of God, we can’t understand. In the same way I wonder about denominations today being right or wrong and why God would let there be any right or wrong interpretations of the Bible, I ask “why can’t we all just understand it the way you meant it to be understood?” Yet, there are tons of different interpretations, congregations, and (to step outside the Bible) religions. But that doesn’t give me the right to determine whose doctrine is right or wrong in the end or why God does things the way He does. God is God. We can’t keep Him in a Synagogue, Temple, Marketplace, Mountain, or a book we call the Bible. As much as myself, Christians and intellectuals want to grasp and understand everything we can so that we might be confident we have a handle on it, I believe that even the most educated and theologically correct person’s mind and heart will be blown upon Christ’s return and when we stand before the throne. Don’t think I am saying that studying and trying to apply expectations to what really happened is useless, it is wonderful and beautiful. I think we can grow a lot by trying to wrap our heads and hearts around these things and help us apply Christ as Messiah to different peoples and expectations. I guess I am just excited to be sure about everything once I see it happen and can dwell with God myself, somehow having understanding of how He reconciled all things to Himself and why and how exactly what happened when it did. How ever it turns out to make sense (or not) to our human understandings, I will be humbled at how great God’s ways are.

    • I am confident that if Jesus visited any modern church he would (a) not be welcomed since he is not dressed nice enough and (b) he would have a stinging rebuke to deliver. He certainly does not conform himself to our expectations.

  5. Scott brings up an excellent point. We have no way of fully understanding God because we are human. Like the passage in John 10:30-33, Job 36:26 says, “How great is God–beyond our understanding! The number of his years is past finding out (NIV).” We cannot fully understand Him but we should always be studying Him to better understand His word and what is required of us. Jesus’ ways were unorthodox and his upbringing was not like everyone else. It is not very surprising to me that everyone was so thrown off by Jesus as their savior. When you expect one thing and get another, it is hard to comprehend but when you get something that is completely off the radar, it is unfathomable.
    I believe that it was like this so that as humans we could not categorize our almighty savior and put Him in a box. Jesus was the original, “outside the box thinker.” He had an unearthly agenda that could not be swayed like the leaders of today can be. This is why He is who He was and will always be.

  6. “I believe that one thing that we do as humans is try to categorize everything, we try to understand Jesus perfectly.” One saying I am constantly hearing is “don’t put God in a box!” And when I read this blog post, and remember this quote, I wonder if this quote was originated when Christ was here… (joke). But in all reality, I believe this is what was happening when the stories, and teaching of old, from the OT, were being passed down. People were hearing of this great Prophet who would come and conquer, and be the way we find everlasting life. They began to put this “man” in a box with gift wrap and a nice bow on top. They envisioned, and made Jesus, who they wanted Him to be, not who he was to be and what he was to do. I believe this could skew how they viewed the Kingdom of God, maybe as they “put” Jesus in a box, they could “put” anything else dealing with Jesus in a box as well, and their vision of the coming Kingdom could be very skewed.

  7. I agree with Scott. We do try to control and fit puzzle pieces together about understanding Jesus completely. Our minds cannot fully comprehend God and his ways. If we could comprehend God, then we would not need him. But, it is very important to do our part of learning about what Jesus has to say to us. There are a lot of things in the Scriptures, even when the Jews were listening to Jesus speak, that we sometimes cannot understand and why Jesus plans the things he does in the way they are to be done. When we try to control and fit the puzzle pieces together ourselves, everyone is going to come up with something different and with different reasons. That is why we need to know that what God said, God will do. We cannot control what may or may not happen. We are not all-knowing, God is.

  8. As I read about all the expectations that second temple period Jews had or did not have for a Messiah, the mystery of God’s plan becomes all the more humbling. Because many of those observations have been pointed out already, I wanted to bring up something I have been thinking about more as we study this time period. If Judaism was confused about the arrival of the kingdom which had been promised for thousands of years, how much more will Christianity today be surprised by how the second coming of Christ unfolds? This obviously is not a new question but the post about which mentioned the Left Behind series reminded me how much Christians today are just like Jews from that time period. We have our eschatological beliefs and ideas about how God will sort out our situation, judge the world, and fulfill His promises. When you get down to it, Scripture offers very few specific details about this topic. Yet just about every denomination has their own timeline with detailed accounts of God’s future dealings. I do not think that studying end times is futile, I think it is necessary and helps us to understand God more. Sometimes I just find myself questioning the certainty with which future details are taught in Christian circles. And if the past is any indication, I would be surprised if God’s actual plan for the future fits our human understanding of how it will be.

  9. As Scott stated above, as humans, we feel the need to find a reason and a place for everything. Ever since creation, we’ve felt the need to categorize things. Adam, for example, named all of the animals and everything in existence. When it comes to God, however, we’re in WAY over our heads. The harder we try to put God in a category or if we try to define Him, we lose the whole point to Him and our story. By attempting to categorize God, we’re taking away his non-communicable attributes such as, all-knowing and all-powerful. Because if we were to understand everything there is about God, we would begin to think that we’re like Him, which would not end well. Just take a look at how the tower of Babel turned out. Jews made the attempt to creating expectations or a mold that their Messiah would fit in to rescue them, but Jesus came, He saw, He conquered. He didn’t do it how they expected it to happen (guns blazin’), He did it the way that it was intended to be done. And once again, He came to fulfill His purpose, not to please our expectations.

  10. P. Long blogged, “I think it serves to show that Jesus did not fit neatly into any first century conception of Messiah or Kingdom, which is exactly why audience struggled to understand him, both disciples and enemies.” I love this statement because it’s something that I believe many people today can resonate with and people of the 1st century. Jesus left his disciples and many more confused after he spoke in parables about the Kingdom of God. Parallel’s can be drawn to followers of Jesus today. Scott is right, there is not much of an account in the Bible of how the end times will actually happen. Our eschatological beliefs are definitely valuable and are worth our time discussing and working out, but we definitely cannot be sure of it. Just like the Jews of the 1st century, our beliefs of the end times could be way off. I have heard authors of commentary’s believe their guess is as good as anyone else’s.

  11. So would it be safe to say that Jesus to the first century Jews was treated similarly to how baptism is treated today? For some people it is a salvation issue, for some people they don’t do it, and others are indifferent? If so, then it is completely understandable why different groups would debate who Jesus was and if He would have any lasting impact after He died.

    I always find the saying “everyone is a genius in hindsight” to be so funny. Mostly because it is incredibly true! We look back now and fully believe that Christ was telling the truth, heck, we believe that Christ is the truth! Yet at that time, He was a hot topic to be debated and discussed. Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement was a hot topic and there were plenty of people who supported it, plenty who were against it, and probably some who simply did not care. Looking back on it however, all of us can agree that it was the right thing to do. I can see baptism being a non topic in 30 years as well.

    Overall, I think it is safe to use what the 1st century Jews believed. We can look at each group individually and compare it to what we know today. Doing so will allow us to better understand Christ and everything He stood for.

  12. That’s been one of my biggest issues reading Wright thus far is that he talks about the Jews a lot in the context of Jesus and it’s hard for me to understand how that he makes referencing the Jews supports his point because of the fact that Jesus wasn’t what they were expecting, or what anyone was expecting. I still think it’s valuable to look at the Jews and what they believed but I had been wondering how everything connects.

  13. It is fascinating to see how Jesus fits into the world from a cultural, social, and political stand point. Christians focus on the Christ of faith so much and forget the historical Jesus. Not that these should be separated, but they are. In my own life, I never learned about how Jesus fit into the world, and why they rejected him like they did. Understanding the worldview of the culture around Jesus at the time by understanding the boiling bot of Jewish aspirations that was consistently suppressed by the Romans helps put it all into perspective. I can begin to understand their reactions to Jesus, their rejections, Judas’ betrayal, and their excitement around his message. He had a revolutionary claim that was different that the others before him and those to come after. He proclaimed the Kingdom of God is at hand to a Jewish world that had been waiting for their restoration and vindication. Jesus did not fit neatly into their mold because he was not what their aspirations were expecting. Wright’s focus on the Jewish world of the time is a way of illuminating the historical Jesus to give us a picture of who Jesus was to the people of his time. And as Scott said, “And if the past is any indication, I would be surprised if God’s actual plan for the future fits our human understanding of how it will be.” I doubt we are much better off in understanding God’s plan than the first century Jews. This is a humbling and important fact to remember as we study Jesus.

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