Jesus and Jewish Eschatology

Jesus as MessiahIn Mark 13:4 (Matt 24:3, Luke 21:7) the disciples ask Jesus “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus had just predicted that at some point, the beautiful Temple would be destroyed, “not one stone would be left on another.” For many Jews living in the first century, the idea of an eschatological age that restored a kingdom to Israel was a very real hope. But there were a number of general expectations that went along with this idea of restoration. Each of the Synoptic Gospels includes a long teaching section after Jesus’ teaching in the Temple. It is remarkable how closely Jesus aligns with Jewish thinking about the coming age.

Persecution. The restoration of Israel would be accompanied by a time of intense testing. This period of persecution will separate the true Israel from the false. The capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians initiated a long sequence of conflict with pagan rulers which reached a climax during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. The struggles of the Maccabean period become a paradigm for future persecutions.

Messiah. A new David would appear in those days to establish the kingdom in Jerusalem just as the first David had done. This messiah will appear at the end of the persecution to rescue the righteous remnant from their suffering, in the same way that the Maccabees rose up against Antiochus IV Epiphanies and re-dedicated the temple. He will establish the throne of God in Jerusalem and judge both the righteous and the sinner.

Judgment. When God acts on behalf of Israel will sort out the “righteous” from the “sinner” and give justice to all. Everyone will receive what they deserve and will either enter into a restored kingdom or they will be cast out of that kingdom. This involves a judgment on those who have persecuted true Israel including Gentiles and corrupt Jews (at least in some texts.) The fate of the Gentiles runs from complete annihilation to conversion and inclusion in the new age.

Restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. The hope of the Old Testament prophets is for the restoration of the nation after the long period of punishment. A repeated theme in the prophets is of God’s desire to restore his people after a period of discipline. The period after the Maccabees fell far short of the ideal kingdom expected, causing a variety of reactions to Hasmonean rule. This is not the “end of the world” in the sense of a destruction of this universe, but rather a renewal of all things to the way God had intended it in the first place. The Jews of the first century would not be looking for the end of the world but rather a very much “this world” shalom of peace and prosperity. This restoration will be a resurrection of the nation based on Ezekiel 37 and may very well involve a real resurrection of those who lose their lives as martyrs will live again at the time of restoration.

The source of this hope of restoration of the kingdom is to be found first in the prophets of the Old Testament, but also in the massive literature post-dating the Hebrew Bible. The idea of restoration and the themes of Messiah and persecution are expanded and developed in this period by a variety of writers, each contributing to the messianic worldview of the first century.

That these expectations are present in the teaching of Jesus is clear, but the extent to which they are present is a problem. Did Jesus fully accept the messianic expectations of the intertestamental writings, or did he seek to correct and temper them with his own, ethical teachings?

7 thoughts on “Jesus and Jewish Eschatology

  1. Jesus follows the same pattern when talking about eschatology that he does when talking about things like the Law. Jesus does not come to “change” the Law, but rather to “simplify” it, so to speak. For example, he didn’t talk about the Sabbath as something to be ignored, but he cleared it up, basically explaining it as a day to honor the Lord by doing good, not being lazy. In the same way, Jesus speaks of the coming of the Kingdom as something that will happen, and he explains it in a way that is very similar to the old Jewish beliefs of it. Like he did with the Law, however, Jesus gave some specifics that weren’t known in previous Jewish writings, and he made it easier to understand. Also, Jesus frequently quotes the prophets in his ministry, and he does so while speaking on eschatology as well, as in Mark 13:5-8 when he alludes to Isaiah 19.

  2. I believe Jesus does, to an extent, align with the intertestamental writings, however, that being said He is very distinctive in what He says and interprets them a little bit different. Jesus chose to teach on the end times because it was a matter of deep confusion and He warns that it would get much worse before it got better. Since Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, His followers were confused about what that meant. They were expecting a revolutionary and a deliverer, not a humble rabbi who would allow Himself to be executed. In Matthew 24:4-5, Jesus says, “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.” Jesus is very clear that they would be deceived so they must be on guard and be prepared to clearly define between the many fake messiahs and the one real Messiah. As far as the persecution, judgement, and restoration, Jesus is fairly similar in His teachings regarding those topics. Like I have said above Jesus warns that it is going to get much worse, “the birth pains”, before it will get better. In verse 9 of that same chapter in Matthew, Jesus says, “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” I find it interesting that Jesus ends His warning in chapter 24 by returning to a fig tree, but this time He uses it as a metaphor. “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree. As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (vs. 32-33). So, Jesus is like the traditional Jewish writings in the coming judgement and restoration mindset, however, the major difference is in Himself, the Messiah, which the Jews did not except. Jesus is clear that the end of the age is coming, so to them, as much as to us, persecution, torture, and death for His sake and He tells us to be ready. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (vs. 42)

  3. Your final question is extremely difficult to answer. For one, as the article itself implies, expectations of a messiah varied a lot! (Including that there might be complementing priestly and prophetic ones, so two, not just one.) And many forget that what we now know as the “Old Testament” or Hebrew Scriptures was not settled into a canon until after the time of Christ. (And books of the NT quote from non-canonical books as scripture.) So any “authoritative” description didn’t exist, either from within the eventual OT canon or the broader writings.

    Add to that that it isn’t at all clear if Jesus actually considered HIMSELF the messiah, although certain statements in the Gospels present him that way. For example, in Mark, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man in the third person often and not in a way that seems he was really referring to himself. (Just one example of many very puzzling elements.)

  4. This was a great post and interesting replies – a good read. As several individuals have answered before, Jesus did to an extent fulfill the messianic expectations of the Jews, but obviously not completely. Several aspects of the Jews expectations concerning the persecution, messiah, judgment, and restoration of the kingdom to Israel were similar to Old Testament passages and to an extent what Jesus fulfilled. However, hands-down does Jesus seem to maybe not ‘correct’, but fulfill these expectations in His own way. If he would have fulfilled all the expectations just as the Jews predicted, I don’t think they would have supported His crucifixion. But Jesus’ ways are perfect, and the plan of even going to the cross is perfect for our only true Messiah.

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