Messiah: Jesus and His Contemporaries

Messiah: Jesus and His Contemporaries July 29, 2019

It’s a bit of an older theme but that theme remains vital to the discussion about Jesus, violence, killing and war. The older theme is What was the view of Messiah in the Jewish world of Jesus and what was his view?

Do we embrace this contrasting vision of Jesus vs the powers of his day? Is our view of the Christian faith bathed in the blood of violence? Do we see no contradiction between Jesus’ view and our participation in military violence today? Would Jesus?

Ron Sider, in If Jesus is Lord , compares the two in the following observations:

At the core of Jesus’s teaching was the claim that the long-expected messianic time of peace, justice, forgiveness of sins, and restoration of Israel was actually breaking into history in his person and work.

Sider could help his case here by recognizing it’s not just about these good things but about a people embodying these good things. I continue with his statement:

But Jesus puzzled and astonished his contemporaries. By his teaching and action, he offered an understanding of the nature and work of the Messiah that was strikingly different from that of popular expectation. He rejected the widespread messianic idea of a conquering military hero. When he publicly made messianic claims in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he rode not on a military general’s proud warhorse but rather on a lowly donkey. And he taught his followers to love their enemies.

This is the big picture. He first discusses messianism, which is diverse, in Judaism and the states a big picture for Jesus.

In the Jewish texts from the two hundred years before and after the birth of Jesus that speak of the Messiah, his central task is the liberation of Israel (often using military means) and the cleansing or restoration of the Jerusalem temple. There is no expectation that the Messiah will suffer.

What is clear, however, from numerous sources, is that again and again in the three centuries before the Jewish War, oppressive conquerors provoked violent, often religiously motivated, rebellion on the part of the oppressed Jews in Palestine. In this same period, and frequently in close connection, messianic speculation became fairly widespread among the Jews.

The evidence is clear. From the time of the death of Herod I in 4 BC, there were repeated violent rebellions against Roman rule in Palestine. Both in Galilee and especially in Jerusalem, “revolution of one sort or another was in the air, and often present on the ground.” The sources often indicate a religious motivation. Frequently, N. T. Wright points out, these movements “were led by messianic or quasi-messianic figures.” And the Romans frequently squelched them with crucifixion. Violent messianic revolt, grounded in the belief that God would intervene to bring the messianic kingdom if the Jews would dare to rebel, was clearly part of Jewish life in this period.

But Jesus’ vision was different.

But Jesus fundamentally reinterpreted his people’s hope for the messianic kingdom. Nowhere is this more clear than in Jesus’s rejection of the violent revolutionaries’ call to take up arms against the Romans. These revolutionaries who opposed paying Roman taxes would certainly have denounced the Roman law that made it legal for a Roman soldier to demand that a person in a conquered territory carry his bags for one mile. Instead of urging rebellion against that law, Jesus called his followers to carry the bags a second mile! Instead of urging slaughter of the godless conquerors, Jesus urged his people to love their enemies. Luke describes Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey rather than a warhorse—a powerful indication of Jesus’s rejection of violent messianic strategies. And immediately after this account, Luke tells us that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, foreseeing how the calls for violent revolution will lead to the city’s destruction (a tragedy that actually happened in AD 70). Sadly, Jesus says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42) .

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