Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What Kind of Messiah Did They Expect?

Coins minted by a Messiah
Jesus of Nazareth came as Israel's Messiah and did the Messiah's work, inaugurating the the new age of God's Kingdom promised by ancient prophets by being resurrected from the dead. That's what we were talking about on Monday.

I've never felt right making major assertions without giving something to support them. Especially on a site dedicated to explaining Christianity to interested parties, asking you to just trust me isn't terribly convincing.

So today is going to be a bit of a wonky day. Today I'd like to show you all the technical information that lies behind saying, as I did in the last post, that, "broadly speaking most people agreed [the Messiah] would: be a warrior, ride into Jerusalem, defeat the enemies of God (i.e., the Romans, naturally), purify the temple, and set up the Kingdom of God, which ushered in an age of unending bliss."

Just to warn you ahead of time, this may be incredibly boring. Then again, you might find it fascinating. I sure do.

I could recommend several heavy and expensive books by E. P. Sanders, James J. D. Dunn, and particularly N. T. Wright, but I think it might be handier and cheaper to recommend this webpage instead. On it Glenn Miller pulls together pretty much every scrap of information available about what the Jewish people thought about the Messiah in the centuries surrounding the coming of Jesus. He lists and quotes it all in organized fashion, and provides references in case you happen to become wildly interested in, say, the Targum of Onkelos.

Mr. Miller is coming at this subject from a slightly different angle than I am. He's answering people who say nobody was expecting a Messiah (!) or that they just thought he'd be a regular politician; I'm more interested in what the Messiah was supposed to do rather than what he was supposed to be.

Of course, I can't cut and paste the whole thing into my blog, but I do want to quote his overall conclusion:

"Just as it would be incorrect to affirm that:
  • EVERY 1st century Jew had a passionate expectation of a Messiah-figure; or
  • The 1st century Jewish expectation was exclusively of a NT-model God-man messiah;

SO ALSO... it is accordingly incorrect to say that :
  • The 1st century Jew HAD NO expectation of a Messiah-figure; or
  • The 1st century Jewish expectation was of a purely natural, human-only, regular political leader.

What we CAN affirm is that a messianic expectation (broadly considered) was present in the wide range of Jewish groups that produced literature--throughout the time period-- and that for some of them, their expectations for the 'deliverer who shall come forth from Jacob' was intense, theologically-charged, and surprisingly detailed. It was into this world of mixed hopes, pre-conceived categories, and pre-built eschatologies that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed that 'the Kingdom of God has drawn nigh'..."

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Meaning of the Resurrection

Yesterday we celebrated Easter, also known as Resurrection Sunday, the most important day in the Christian year. But have you ever wondered what it is about Jesus rising from the dead that makes it so significant? What does a resurrection prove?

Here's a little confession: when I was a little kid, growing up catholic, I thought of Jesus as a kind of religious superhero and his resurrection was his mightiest super-deed. By coming back from death he somehow blew open the doors to Heaven so we could all go there when we died.

When I got a little older I thought of it more as a wager. You probably remember this episode from one of the times Jesus and the Pharisees clashed:

"Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law answered Jesus. They said, “Teacher, we want to see you do a miracle as a sign from God.”

Jesus answered, “Evil and sinful people are the ones who want to see a miracle as a sign. But no miracle will be done to prove anything to them. The only sign will be the miracle that happened to the prophet Jonah. Jonah was in the stomach of the big fish for three days and three nights. In the same way, the Son of Man will be in the grave three days and three nights.
(Gospel of Matthew chapter 12 verses 38 - 40, ERV)

In other words, "So you don't believe I'm the Messiah, eh? Tell you what I'm gonna do: you guys kill me. Then if I can come back to life in three days, I'm the Messiah. If I don't, I'm not. Deal?"

That's how I thought of it -- sort of an ancient David Blaine stunt. And I don't think I was alone, although most people wouldn't put it in these crass terms. (Side note: If you've ever wondered about the various ways Jesus' time in the tomb is described -- three days, after three days, three days and three nights, etc. -- I'll cover that in a future post.)

But it wasn't a stunt and it wasn't just a mighty deed (although it is that).

What is a Resurrection?

Think about the word "resurrection;" what did it mean to the average first century Jew? True, there were lots of ideas about the afterlife among them, including that there wasn't one. But for the people back then who spoke of a resurrection (which included the Pharisees, interestingly enough, and most of the devout common folk), it meant a specific thing.

We've talked before here about what the Messiah was supposed to do. There were different ideas about him too of course, but broadly speaking most people agreed he would: be a warrior, ride into Jerusalem, defeat the enemies of God (i.e., the Romans, naturally), purify the temple, and set up the Kingdom of God, which ushered in an age of unending bliss.

"I Am the Resurrection"

For people who believed in a resurrection, every righteous Israelite would come back to life, body and soul, when the new age began. You can see this belief for yourself in that famous scene where Jesus and Martha talk at the grave of her brother Lazarus.

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to greet him. But Mary stayed home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you anything you ask.”

Jesus said, “Your brother will rise and be alive again.”

Martha answered, “I know that he will rise to live again at the time of the resurrection on the last day.”
Raising of Lazarus
She was expecting her brother to come back to life, along with everyone else, "on the last day" of this age. And incidentally, no one was expecting some sort of mass hallucination when this resurrection happened. Believers in a resurrection meant a real, honest to goodness coming back to life in a body in the Kingdom of God. In our day, of course, some speculate that Jesus' resurrection was just a nice, comforting vision, or a feeling that Jesus was still alive somehow beyond the grave. Visions and spiritual feelings were quite familiar to the Jewish people. They happened regularly. Neither one would convince them that a resurrection had occurred.

But back to Lazarus' grave, notice how Jesus answers Martha.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection. I am life. Everyone who believes in me will have life, even if they die. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never really die. Martha, do you believe this?”

Martha answered, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God. You are the one who was coming to the world.”
(Gospel of John chapter 11 verses 17 - 27, ERV)

Here and Now

Here's the point: to Martha and other faithful Jews like her whenever the resurrection finally happened it would mean that the Messiah had come and defeated God's enemies, that the Kingdom of God was here, that the end of this evil age had arrived.

But for the the resurrection to happen now, in the case of Jesus, meant that the Messiah and his Kingdom were here now -- in the middle of history. And that was unexpected to say the least. The Apostle Paul wrote:
God promised long ago through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures to give this Good News to his people. The Good News is about God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. As a human, he was born from the family of David, but through the Holy Spirit he was shown to be God’s powerful Son when he was raised from death.
(Letter to the Romans chapter 1 verses 2 - 4, ERV)

He is "the resurrection" indeed!

At the beginning we asked, "What is it about Jesus rising from the dead that makes it so significant? What does a resurrection prove?"  As the Christian Movement has always proclaimed in the Great Announcement (a.k.a., the Gospel) it means that the Messiah has been crowned, God's Kingdom is here, and we are those upon whom "the ends of the ages have come."

"Repent and believe this Good News!"

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter: "...If Christ has never been raised..."

The Holy Women at the Tomb
by James Tissot
If what we celebrate on Easter didn't really happen, says the Apostle Paul, then there is really no point in being a member of the Christian Movement at all.

True, Jesus taught very high ethics but, as C.S. Lewis showed in his book The Abolition of Man, other people taught them too. It wasn't being a great ethical teacher that made Jesus different. It was his resurrection -- and what it means -- that made him different. And if that never happened, then you might as well move along. Find an easier religion or philosophy, one that hasn't gotten people insulted and martyred for the last two millennia.

After all, "If our hope in Christ is only for this life here on earth, then people should feel more sorry for us than for anyone else."

On the other hand if this really happened, if the Messiah came back from the dead, well... That changes everything.


"I gave you the message that I received. I told you the most important truths: that Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say; that he was buried and was raised to life on the third day, as the Scriptures say; and that he appeared to Peter and then to the twelve apostles. After that Christ appeared to more than 500 other believers at the same time. Most of them are still living today, but some have died. Then he appeared to James and later to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared to me. I was different, like a baby born before the normal time.

"If Christ has never been raised, then the message we tell is worth nothing. And your faith is worth nothing. And we will also be guilty of lying about God, because we have told people about him, saying that he raised Christ from death...

"If Christ has not been raised from death, then your faith is for nothing; you are still guilty of your sins. And those in Christ who have already died are lost."

First Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 verses 3 - 8, 14, 17 - 19, ERV