The Revolution 2: Jesus in the thought world of the earliest Jewish Christians

“In accordance with the Bible”: Jesus in the world of Jewish ideas

Second post summarising N.T. Wright, 2016. The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. London: SPCK.
The day the revolution began has four parts, and this post attempts to summarise Part Two. Here Wright fleshes out the ideas at the end of Part One and enters into his promise to take us inside the earliest Christians' heads. He outlines the Old Testament history which they believed was fulfilled by Jesus. The previous post (The Revolution 1) on Tom Wright's book is here.

The goal of the cross

Wright has said in Part One that knowing what Jesus accomplished on the cross includes knowing what he did it for. Central to this purpose is the Revelation vision:

Glory to the one who loved us, and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and father—glory and power be to him forever and ever. Amen. (1:5–6)
You are worthy to take the scroll;
You are worthy to open its seals;
For you were slaughtered and with your own blood
You purchased a people for God,
From every tribe and tongue,
From every people and nation,
And made them a kingdom and priests to our God
And they will reign on the earth
. (5:9–10)
Blessed and holy is the one who has a share in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them. They will be priests to God and the Messiah, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (20:6)

Wright writes, ‘The great scene at the end of the book is the joining together of the “new heavens and new earth”. The redeemed receive back the role marked out for them in Genesis and reaffirmed as Israel’s vocation in the book of Exodus. There God promises his newly rescued people that they will be his “treasured possession,” “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:5–6).’ (Cf 1 Peter 2:9)[1] .

In anticipation of the renewed creation, our vocation is 'to stand at the dangerous but exhilarating point where heaven and earth meet', to be God's “image-bearers” who sum up the praises of creation before the Creator and reflect God’s wisdom and justice into his world. This is not new: it echoes Calvin, for example. But it is not always the story that appears in popular preaching and teaching today.

Paul on the human problem

People often assume that when Paul explains what is wrong with the human race, he focuses on sin, but his focus in Romans 1-2 is on idolatry. Idolatry is failure to worship God, giving allegiance instead to some other object of worship, be it money, sex, power or some other created thing:

They swapped God’s truth for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. (Rom 1:25)

When humans fail in their image-bearing vocation, the ‘powers’ seize control, obstructing God’s plan for his creation. We humans have turned our vocation upside down, giving to nondivine and nonhuman powers the authority and power we are supposed to be exercising ourselves, and these powers ‘have run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.’

But Paul’s train of thought takes us from Jesus’ death via forgiveness to the renewal of human vocation:

For if, by the trespass of the one, death reigned through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace, and of the gift of covenant membership, of “being in the right,” reign in life through the one man Jesus the Messiah. (Romans 5:17)
The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Galatians 3, says Wright, ’is about how God’s promises to Abraham always envisaged a worldwide family and how the gospel events have brought that into reality.’ In Galatians 3:13,

The Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse on our behalf, as the Bible says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” This was so that the blessing of Abraham could flow through to the nations in King Jesus—and so that we might receive the promise of the spirit, through faith.

Here Paul retrieves Israel’s vocation, that

‘…you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ (Exod. 19:4–6)
and this vocation underlies Isaiah’s vision:

I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. . . . (49:6)
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (60:3)

But if one reads quickly through the Old Testament, one finds that it tells a great story that has no ending. At the end of the Pentateuch, Israel is warned against rebellion, exile, and death (Deuteronomy 30:15–20). At the end of Chronicles (the last book of the Jewish scriptures), the exile was still continuing. At the end of Malachi (4:1-6)(the last book of the Christian Old Testament), God has promised to come back and sort things out, but it has yet to happen.

Three consequences of the covenant

In Genesis God had made it clear that Abraham and his family were to be the means by which the problem of the human race would be resolved. They were called to reverse the problem of Adam and Eve. Three things followed from this.

First, the promised land was the new Eden, a place of life as opposed to death (Deuteronomy 30:15–20). The Israelites could choose either life and prosperity or death and destruction. The former would follow from walking in God’s ways and keeping his commands. The alternative was national destruction and exile.

Second, the land was the place of the divine presence, first in the tabernacle and then in the Temple, a sign that God intended to restore creation itself, flooding it with his presence (Psalm 72:19; Isaiah 11:9; Habbakuk 2:14).

Third, the land was also the signpost to something greater, as ‘the divine purpose is eventually to bring the whole world under the rescuing and rehumanizing rule of Israel’s God.’

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. (Ps 2:8, repeated in Psalms 72 and 89)
Consequence One: The promised land, then idolatry and exile, and finally forgiveness of sins

Looking at the first of these consequences, we see that the Old Testament story is full of exiles: Abraham into Egypt, Jacob’s running from his brother’s anger, the Egyptian exile and Israelite slavery, and finally the Babylonian exile. What follows Babylon is puzzling: some of the exiles return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, but, except for short periods, they do not regain their independence. The post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi suggest that although some of the exiles have returned, God has not, despite the promises of Isaiah 52 and Ezekiel 43.

The Book of Daniel, thought to have reached its final form in the second century BC, extends Jeremiah’s predicted 70-year exile to nearly 500 years, so that it stretched to Jesus’ earthly lifetime. The New Testament writers saw Jesus' death and resurrection as the end of this exile. If we do not see Jesus’ death in this context, Wright emphasises, we miss the meaning that early Christians attributed to it.

Israel had rejected the Creator’s call and command, with the consequences forecast in Deuteronomy 30. Wright writes: ‘Somehow—and the greatest of the prophets struggled in prayer and poetry to bring this insight to birth—just as the Creator chose the covenant people to be the means of rescuing the human race, so now, with the chosen people themselves in need of rescue, God might do the same thing again.’ How this might happen was obscure, but the early Christians believed that this had happened through Israel’s Messiah, Jesus.

The word sin has come in Western culture, Wright says, ‘to be associated, rightly or wrongly, with a killjoy, finger-wagging, holier-than-thou moralism, with a fussy, nit-picking concentration on small personal misdemeanours that ignore major injustice and oppression.’ Within the biblical story, however, sin is the human failure to take up the vocation of worshipping God. Humans were made to be God’s image-bearers (cf Genesis 1:26–28), to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator and to reflect the Creator’s wise and loving stewardship into the world. Failure to worship God means idolatry — worshipping something other than God. And that is why, if God’s plan is to rescue and restore his whole creation, with humans as the active agents, sins have to be dealt with. Only when human beings turn to worship God will the nondivine forces that usurp the human role in the world lose their power.

The tale of the dry bones returning to life (Ezekiel 37) says that God will do what is necessary to restore Israel and humanity to their divine vocation. The rescue operation that was launched in Abraham’s family must be completed. Israel’s sins must be dealt with. Wright sums up:” ‘Exile will be undone, sins will be forgiven, and new life will be offered to the world—through the personal Presence and the powerful rescuing action of Israel’s God himself. This belief stands at the heart of the early Christian understanding of Jesus’s death.’

Consequence Two: God’s presence, his withdrawal and his return in Jesus

The second consequence of God’s covenant with Abraham was that God would be present among his people as he had been present in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8). God makes himself known afresh during the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 3:13–15; 6:2), and despite the golden calf incident, comes to dwell among his people in the tabernacle, meeting them at the lid of the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:17–22) and leading them with cloud and fire into the promised land. Later David wanted to build a permanent shrine to house the ark, but the prophet Nathan intervened with the punning message that instead of David building God a house, God would instead build a house for David (2 Samuel 7:11-14),

and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

David’s house was, of course, his family down through time, and early Christians read the ‘son’, long awaited by devout Jews, as his descendant Jesus.

Meanwhile, David's son Solomon did build the temple, and the divine Glory came to dwell there (1 Kings 8; cf Exodus 40). The destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC was only possible because the divine Presence had already left it (Ezekiel 10:18 and 11:23) on account of the people’s idolatry (Ez 11:21), and the consequence was exile (Ez 11:9). However, Ezekiel prophesies the return of the Glory to the temple after God has cleansed his people (Ez 43:4).

The same story is told at length in Isaiah 40–55, but this version contains (Is 52 and 53) the image of the person who suffers and dies on behalf of the many. Haggai, Zecharaiah and Malachi all insist that the Glory will return. But although the temple was rebuilt, no one ever suggested that the divine Presence had in fact returned. Centuries later, Wright tells us, ‘the rabbis looked back on this period and produced a list, with a sense of gloomy resignation, of all the ways in which the Second Temple was deficient in comparison with the First Temple. Notable on the list was the Shekinah itself, the glorious divine Presence. In Jesus’s day, the hope was alive that the Glory would return at last. But nobody knew exactly what that would mean, how it would happen, or what it would look like.’ The New Testament writers offered an answer ‘so explosive, so unexpected, so revolutionary, that it has remained entirely off the radar for most modern readers, …’

The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We gazed upon his glory, glory like that of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).

The word for “lived” here is eskēnosen “tabernacled, pitched his tent.” That is, ‘in Jesus the new tabernacle, the new Temple, has been built, and the divine Glory has returned at last.’ Jesus is the ‘father’s only son’ taking up 2 Samuel 7 (and Psalm 72, Malachi 3:3).

One of the ways in which Jewish writers talked about this hope of an end to exile was ‘forgiveness of sins’:

The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished,
he will keep you in exile no longer. (Lamentations 4:22 ESV)
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from YHWH’s hand
double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1–2)

See also Isaiah 52:13–53:12 and Jeremiah 31:31–34.

The forgiveness of sins was a long awaited life-changing reality, but it is startling to think how, in Wright's words, ‘We have exchanged the glory of God for a mess of spiritualized, individualistic, and moralistic pottage. And in the middle of it we have radically distorted the meaning of the central gospel message: that, in accordance with the Bible, sins are forgiven through the Messiah’s death. We have domesticated the revolution.’

Consequence Three: the kingdom of God

The third consequence of the covenant was the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. The idea of Israel’s God as the world’s king echoes across the Old Testament, yet it was a statement of faith, sung often in the face of contrary evidence, ‘that one day his kingship would be established forever.’ Daniel’s visions are complex, but at the end of the 490 years will some the time

to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy one. (Daniel 9:24).

It is no coincidence that the kingdom of God was a major theme of Jesus’ preaching. It was through him that the prophecies of the writer of Lamentations and of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel would be fulfilled.

God the redeemer

The world of Jewish ideas into which Jesus was born certainly included the expectation that the end of exile and the forgiveness of sins would come about through a time of intense suffering (e.g. Psalm 22), but no one believed that the Messiah would die for the sins of the nation. He was, after all, to be a military conqueror (Psalm 2, Psalm 110). Only in Isaiah 53 is the sufferer the means rather than just the context of this deliverance. But how was he the means? The idea of one person dying for all is pagan, not Jewish. In Jewish practice, it was not the killing of the sacrificial animal that mattered but the sprinkling of the blood to cleanse the sinner.

Wright also emphasises Jewish thought in regard to redemption: ‘When the creator God redeems his covenant people, this will be the result of his faithful love.’ In pagan thought it was human beings who managed to turn away divine wrath, and a human individual who died a noble death on behalf of others. In contrast, the Old Testament is clear that the rescue is accomplished by Israel’s God himself ‘because of his unchanging, unshakeable love for his people,’ a theme repeated over and over in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7:6–9; Isaiah 43:1–4, 63:8–9; Jeremiah 31:3; Lamentations 3:22–23; Hosea 11:1). Out of this emerges the promise that God’s covenant love for Israel will be extended through Israel to the nations:

I am YHWH, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa. 42:6–7, Wright's translation)

Wright says of Isaiah, ‘It is as though the prophet is pointing into the dark, hardly able to believe what he finds himself saying. But he claims to know three things: first, that redemption will come through the work of YHWH’s anointed; second, that it will involve intense suffering and death, through which the exile-causing sins of Israel would at last be dealt with; and third, that this achievement will be the work of YHWH himself.’ The early Christians saw these themes ‘rushing together into a new, decisive, revolutionary dénouement. … By the evening of the first Good Friday, sins had been dealt with and the powers defeated in fulfilment of the ancient divine promise. The Messiah had died for sins in accordance with the Bible.’

The next post on N.T. Wright's The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion is here.


    [1] 'But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.'