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Also available as a Kindle e-book. ASIN: B00WFOVLDC
Jesus’ World View and How It Became Ours
William McGaughey's condensation and interpretation of Albert Schweitzer's view of Jesus and the Kingdom of God
Table of Contents
Part I Foundations of Religion
its primeval origin
Part II Prophets from Amos through Second Zechariah
Historical Background: establishment of a Hebrew kingdom
Historical Background: writing prophets before and during the Exile
A dialogue between prophecy and live history
some post-exilic prophets
Haggai and Zechariah
Joel, Isaiah 24-27, Zechariah 9-14
Part III Daniel and the Apocalyptists of Late Judaism
Historical Background: Persian rule gives way to Greek
Historical Background: Maccabean rule
The religion of Zoroaster
Historical Background: Judaea in Roman times
The Kingdom of God in late Judaism
The Apocalypse of Enoch
The Psalms of Solomon
The Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra
prophetic literature becomes a reality in people’s mind
Part IV. Jesus and John the Baptist
a new type of literature
A question from John to Jesus
Part V Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God
What Jesus wanted his followers to know
A higher degree of righteousness
Judging and forgiving others
The ethic of love
Doing the will of God
Is Jesus’ view of the Kingdom spiritual?
What is Jesus’ own view of the Kingdom?
Why did Jesus adopt this view?
What impact did a supernatural Kingdom have on the ethics of Jesus?
Part VI Jesus’ Messianic secret
Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah?
Was Jesus son of David?
In what sense was Jesus “Son of Man”?
An ill-kept secret
The secret is betrayed
Part VII Short cut to the Kingdom
Was Jesus facing increased opposition to his ministry?
A change in plans
The Lord’s Prayer
How the pre-Messianic tribulation might be canceled
What led Jesus to this idea?
Part VIII The end comes
Pressuring God through prayer
Does Jesus’ death atone for the sins of others?
In the garden of Gethsemane
IX. Practices and beliefs after Christ’s resurrection
Historical Background: early Christianity
Belief in the Resurrection
Jesus’ own view of the Resurrection
Origin of the Atoning Death
Outpouring of spirit as a sign that the Kingdom is near
When Jesus might return
Part X. Paul’s view of the Kingdom
The Kingdom has already come
Satan’s angelic host
The two kingdoms
Spirit gradually appearing
Part XI. Paul’s ethic
The ethic of love
Concessions to the world
Christ’s atoning death
Opposition to the Law
Do baptized Christians stay saved?
Part XII. Prophecies of a Second Coming
Historical Background: After Jesus’ death and resurrection
The book of Revelation
Matching events foretold in Revelation with a time of fulfillment
Appendix: Some poetry written in the 20th century with the aid of Gematria
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What was Jesus thinking when he preached in Galilee and ascended the cross and was raised from the dead? We do not know. Our main source of information is the Gospels. It was a different mentality back then. A foremost interpreter of the Gospels was Albert Schweitzer, the famed theologian, pipe organist, and medical doctor. In this book, I will closely follow the line of reasoning and information presented in Schweitzer’s last book, The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity, published posthumously in 1965.
Part I Foundations of Religion
Its primeval origin
Before getting into Christianity's story, it may be useful to go back to a time well before Jesus’ time when religious culture began. This was a time before there were cities, or writing, or schools, or coined money. Human societies were organized as tribes, which were really extended families. If we go back in time five or ten thousand years, there are the rudiments of religion but nothing like what we know today. Tribal shamans or priests practiced this function. It was animistic religion.
Primitive man believed in a spirit world behind the physical world. When a person died, his or her spirit remained in an immaterial form which nevertheless could be approached. The various elements found in nature also had spirits. Trees had spirits, as did particular mountains, rivers, the sky, and earth. It was important for man to maintain a good relationship with spirit.
The spirits liked certain things. They liked remembrance and rituals done in memory of them. Priests appeared who knew how to do rituals properly. Cults of priests became devoted to particular spirits. These spirits were rudimentary gods and goddesses, each associated with something in nature or a character in a mythological story. It was thought that rituals in honor of particular gods could help achieve a practical result such as healing or ensuring an abundant crop. Certain verbal formulae were employed for particular purposes.
At this point in time, there were many such spirits, not just one. At the dawn of civilization, priesthoods honoring particular gods became established in certain places. When city-states emerged, these communities had their own gods. The gods of cities were housed in temples, often in the form of a statue bearing the likeness of a human or half-human, half-animal figure. The gods were protectors of the cities. They also owned the surrounding lands and exacted a share of the produce. We can see that the spirits were gradually being redirected from representing elements in nature to representing politically organized human communities. They became emblematic of those communities as a kind of collective spirit.
The God Jehovah was a special protector of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, later, of the Hebrew tribe. The prophet Moses and his brother Aaron, whose descendants became hereditary priests in Jehovah’s cult, were key figures in the emerging religion. It is likely that Moses lived during the 13th century B.C. We were now past nature worship and into community or state religion.
In this period of time, humanity had experienced large political empires such as those in Mesopotamia and Egypt or the Hittite empire in Turkey. The Egyptian pharaoh Ikhnaton had introduced the idea of monotheism. The Hebrew tribes were a small group caught in the crosshairs of imperial strife. But they had an ancestral God to support them. In Moses, they had a leader to free them from Egyptian bondage and make them into an independent nation.
Today we know Moses as a character in a story told in the book of Exodus. The Egyptian pharaoh had been oppressing the Hebrew population descended from Jacob. Moses, their leader, demanded that Pharaoh let the Hebrews leave Egypt. When Pharaoh refused that request, Moses performed a number of divinely enabled miracles to put pressure on him. The Red Sea parted as the Hebrews crossed into Sinai and, after forty years wandering in this bleak territory, reached the land of their ancestors. During the journey, Moses received stone tablets from God while communing atop Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments were inscribed upon them. These commandments became the core of moral principles underlying the future Judaic religion.
Although this Biblical story is well known, what may not be widely acknowledged is the role of written language in shaping the new religion. The earliest writing was Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics, both introduced before 3000 B.C. Alphabetic writing, which may have been derived from Egyptian demotic or shorthand writing, was first used in the Sinai and Palestine in the second millennium B.C. By the time that Moses lived, this form of writing was sufficiently well developed that God’s commandments could be written down and preserved in stone inscriptions. The written story of Moses preserved the memory of the exodus from Egypt and trek through the desert to the promised land for centuries to come.
The stories told in Exodus describe numerous miracles that Moses performed with God’s power and assistance. These miracles establish God’s power over the forces of nature. There are also quotations ascribed to God directly or directed through Moses, who, the Bible says, knew God “knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10) By the time that Judaism became organized as a religion, these moral instructions and historical experiences had become venerated by the Hebrew people as distant memories of God’s role in creating their nation. An aura of absolute truthfulness and infallibility surrounded them. God through Moses promised the Hebrews that they would prosper and grow strong so long as they worshipped their God, Jehovah, and obeyed his commandments. Such were the “marching orders” given the new nation.
Part II Prophets from Amos through Second Zechariah
Historical Background: establishment of a Hebrew kingdom
The Judaic nation took shape slowly after the Hebrew tribes, now led by Joshua, entered and occupied the promised land of Canaan. During the period of the Judges in the 11th century B.C., the Hebrew tribes were in conflict with the more tightly organized Philistine city-states in Gaza which had a monopoly in the art of working with iron. Unable to conquer the Hebrews militarily, the Philistines seized the Ark of the Covenant in an attempt to demoralize them but its possession brought only misfortune.
When the Philistines denied them a blacksmith of their own to resharpen iron tools, the Hebrew tribes united under the command of Saul, who became their first king. Saul defeated the Philistines in battle. He later committed suicide after being defeated at Gilboa in 1013 B.C. Saul’s son Jonathan then ruled east of the Jordan while a Philistine vassal, David, was king of Judah in Hebron.
David became king over all the tribes of Israel after he defeated the Philistines and drove them out of Canaan. He captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites around 1000 B.C., built a wall around the city, and made it the capital of his kingdom. David went on to conquer the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites, and the Aramaean states of Damascus and Zobah. The Canaanite population became culturally and politically integrated within the Hebrew state, which now encompassed all of southern Syria except for Philistia.
Although David had intended to build a permanent shrine in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant, it fell to David’s son and successor, Solomon, to build the Temple. Unlike most Middle Eastern temples, this one did not contain a statue of a god, only the Ark surrounded by statues of angels with folded wings. Solomon was a king who preferred wisdom to riches or power. Yet, he was also ruler of an empire that traded with distant kingdoms and became rich. For diplomatic reasons, Solomon had several foreign-born wives. Foreign dignitaries visited his court. However, his ambitious construction projects strained the material resources of the nation.
Even before Solomon’s death in 933 B.C., the empire began to crumble. The people of Edom and Damascus revolted. Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam I, rebuffed a request for tax relief from certain of the northern tribes. They, too, revolted, splitting the empire in two. Jeroboam I set up a new kingdom with a capital at Shechem which later was transferred to Samaria. During the next two centuries, this “northern kingdom” grew to be more powerful than the southern kingdom based in Jerusalem. After a century of conflict with the Aramaeans, King Jeroboam II of Israel was able to achieve hegemony over Judah after the Assyrians dealt the Aramaeans a crippling blow. However, there remained a belief that God would channel his favor to the Jews through David’s dynasty in Jerusalem.
Solomon and his father had both pursued a policy of integration with the Canaanite people. In a practical sense, this meant tolerating their gods. When Solomon and his successors took foreign wives, they allowed foreign worship to be introduced at court. Contrary to instructions given by Moses, the Jewish kings allowed shrines to be built to other gods. Such practices were prevalent in the Northern Kingdom where Jereboam I, established rival cults at Dan and Bethel, using non-Levitic priests. To the Jerusalem priesthood, the Northern Kingdom represented apostasy. When this kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., there was a ready explanation for the disaster: God had withdrawn his favor.
About this time religious prophets became politically influential. The early Syrian and Hebrew prophets were men who fell into shamanic trances. They were not tellers of the future but persons who “told forth” divinely revealed truths. Saul fell in with such a band of ecstatic prophets.
In the 9th Century B.C., however, prophets of the Northern Kingdom began to criticize idol-worship at the court of King Ahab. Ahab had allowed his Sidonian wife, Jezebel, to set up a cult of her people’s god, Baal, in Samaria. The prophet Elijah railed against Ahab’s idolatry. He engaged in a contest with the priests of Baal, demonstrating that sacrifices to Jehovah alone would be accepted. A three-year drought fell upon the land. After working many miracles, Elijah departed from the earth in a chariot of fire.
With an even larger band of followers, the prophet Elisha continued Elijah’s work. Elisha instigated a rebellion against Ahab’s son, Jehoram (or Joram), among the king’s troops stationed along the border with Damascus. One of Elisha’s disciples anointed Jehu, the local commander, to replace Jehoram as king. Given prophetic sanction, Jehu promptly traveled to the royal palace where he slaughtered Jehoram, the Queen Mother Jezebel, and other surviving members of Ahab’s family, and set himself upon the throne, ending the previous dynasty.
Politically, the northern kingdom was under pressure from the expanding Assyrian empire. It made the mistake of becoming allied with Assyria’s enemy, the Aramaean city of Damascus. The Assyrians seized Gilead and Galilee from Israel in 733-32 B.C. and then captured Damascus. Rulers of the northern kingdom sought to stave off defeat through alliances with Assyria and with Egypt but these failed. When Hoshea refused to pay tribute to the Assyrians, he was deposed.
In 722 B.C., Sargon of Assyria captured Samaria after a three-year siege. Over 27,000 Israelites were deported to other parts of the Assyrian empire. There was a lesson in the fact that the Assyrian empire was unable to take the kingdom at Jerusalem, ruled by descendants of David.
Yet, certain things were also rotten in the southern kingdom of Judah. For the first half century after the northern secession, the southern kings tolerated pagan cults. King Asa (908-867 B.C.) instituted a general purge of these cults. Facing pressure from the north, Jehoshaphat made an alliance with King Ahab. Ahaziah was killed by Jehu whom the prophet Elisha had brought to power in the north. For awhile, a daughter of Jezebel ruled Jerusalem but a palace revolt brought Jehoash to the throne. Amaziah was taken prisoner by king Joash of Israel, and Judah came under northern control.
After a time of prosperity, this combined kingdom faced a threat from Assyria. Contrary to advice from his adviser Isaiah, King Ahaz called upon the Assyrian king for help. Hezekiah, his successor, first defied the Assyrians and then made peace with them after a disastrous war.
While a still vassal of Assyria, Hezekiah participated in an uprising against the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, led by the Babylonian rebel, Merodach-Baladan. The rebellion collapsed in 701 B.C. despite aid from Egypt. Hezekiah sued for peace but Sennacherib demanded Jerusalem’s surrender. Hezekiah refused to surrender but Sennacherib then unexpectedly returned home. While the Judaean countryside was devastated, the capital remained under Hezekiah’s control.
Manasseh, who succeeded Hezekiah as king, adopted a policy of appeasing Assyria and submitting to its rule. Judah contributed troops to the Assyrians and shared in the prosperity of their empire. Foreign merchants came to Judah, bringing diverse customs and strange dress. Doubting Jehovah’s ability to help them, the Judaean people turned to other gods. The court of Manasseh became a center of pagan worship. The cults of Asherah, a Canaanite fertility goddess, and of Assyrian deities took root there. Such developments called for religious reform; but it was not until the reign of Josiah (640-609 B.C.) that actions were taken to restore the Temple cult.
Under Josiah, foreign religious practices were again suppressed. A new set of laws and divine instructions, written around 630 B.C., were “found” in the Temple by the high priest and judged to be authentic. These writings comprise the book of Deuteronomy, which takes an uncompromising stand against worshiping gods other than Jehovah. The Passover celebration again took place in the Temple. Josiah convened a representative assembly to enter into a covenant with God to recognize the Torah. The Assyrian empire was then in the process of dissolution. However, Josiah died before he was able to realize his ambition of recovering all the territories once ruled by King David.
Whatever comfort the inhabitants of Judah might have found in Assyria’s collapse was soon dispelled in the rivalry between Egypt and Babylon to fill the power vacuum. Josiah lost his life while opposing the Egyptians, an Assyrian ally. The Kingdom of Judah became subject first to the Egyptians and then to the Babylonians.
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated Pharaoh Necho II at the battle of Carchemish. Some interpreted Judah’s bad fortune as a consequence of Manasseh’s apostasy.
King Jehoiakim rebelled against the Babylonians in 598 B.C. but was defeated. He died shortly before Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. Jehoiakim’s successor, Jehoiachin again unwisely plotted against Babylon relying upon help from Egypt. Again Nebuchadnezzar prevailed. Jehoiachin and thousands of Jews from prominent families were deported to Babylon. The king’s brother, Zedekiah, was installed upon the throne after swearing loyalty to the Babylonian king.
Zedekiah ruled for ten years. Then, he broke his promise to the Babylonians and sought independence with Egypt’s help. This time, Nebuchadnezzar descended upon Jerusalem with lethal force. After a siege lasting eighteen months, he captured the city, blinded Zedekiah, destroyed the Temple, burned Jerusalem to the ground, and deported the king and much of the Jewish population to Babylon. So began the period of the Babylonian captivity.
Historical Background: writing prophets before and during the Exile
The Babylonian Captivity was the pivotal moment in Jewish religious history. God had promised the Hebrew people through Moses that their nation would always prosper if they worshipped Jehovah alone and kept his Commandments. But now the Jewish nation was destroyed and its elite sent into exile. Had God lied? Were the Jews no longer favored by Jehovah? No, God was not the problem. There had to be another explanation. That explanation was delivered by the prophets. Their story goes back several centuries to the 8th century B.C.
Elijah and Elisha had been prophets of 9th century B.C., but they wrote nothing down. Meanwhile, the Jewish people were being drawn into a literate culture based on the alphabet. The Aramaeans and Phoenicians had originated this type of script. The northern Samarian kingdom was often at war with Damascus, center of Aramaean culture; yet merchants, prophets, and others traveled freely between the two territories. As Judaic religious prophets put writing to the service of their campaign against royal apostates, they added a prophetic twist to the literate culture.
Amos, a herdsman and dresser of fig-mulberries at Tekoa in Judah, was the first writing prophet. He appeared as a prophet at Bethel, the holy city of the North Kingdom, during the reign of Jeroboam II (783-743 B.C.) At the time, this kingdom was militarily threatened by the Assyrians. Amos railed against the oppression of the poor both in Judah and Israel. He predicted that God would punish these nations for their sins but in the end would restore them to righteousness and glory by rebuilding the House of David. Assyria would be the instrument of God’s wrath. Therefore, it was no use to fight the impending ruin. Instead, one should look forward to the future day of the Lord.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel, while militarily stronger than Judah, was considered to be more wicked. Not only was it influenced by foreign gods, this kingdom exhibited greater social inequality. Its northern neighbor, Phoenicia, was prospering from vigorous Mediterranean trade. The elite class in Israel sought to emulate this success by promoting commerce at the expense of agriculture. The commercial class grew richer while farmers in the hinterland failed to keep pace. Issues of social justice were thus added to concerns about idolatrous worship. Amos declared that “righteousness” was pleasing to God.
It was Amos who formulated the basic story of Jewish prophecy, an ongoing story told in writing. Each succeeding prophet added to the tapestry of detail. This story told of God’s wrath. He would destroy the Jewish nation because of its past and present wickedness. But after a period of chastisement, that nation, still favored by God, would be restored to its previous state of power and glory enjoyed during the reign of King David. In fact, a descendant of David would rule the restored nation.
Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah were prophets immediately following Amos; Jeremiah came later. Hosea preached in the northern kingdom in the period between 750 and 740 B.C. Micah and Isaiah preached in the southern kingdom during the period between 740 B.C. and 710 B.C. and between 727 and 699 B.C. respectively when the northern kingdom was threatened by Assyria. When, in 722 B.C., Sargon of Assyria captured Samaria after a three-year siege, the prophet Hosea interpreted the distressing events as a sign that the kingdom of Israel had turned away from God. There was a lesson in the fact that the Assyrian empire was unable to take the kingdom at Jerusalem, ruled by descendants of David.
After submitting to Assyrian rule, King Ahaz installed an Aramaean altar in the Temple and tolerated foreign cults. The prophets Isaiah and Micah warned against these practices. Having criticized the corruption of Judaean society during the prosperous reign of King Uzziah, Isaiah now argued that the Assyrians were “a hired razor from across the Euphrates” meant to shave Judah clean of its iniquities. While the Assyrians were indeed ungodly and cruel, he argued that the Jews should not put their trust in alliances or rebellions but look to God alone for salvation. After their cleansing had been accomplished, God would break Assyrian power upon the mountains of Judah, showing all subjected nations that the Hebrew God was God of the entire world.
Micah, too, presented a scenario of succumbing to Assyrian power followed by national redemption. Unlike Isaiah, he foresaw that Jerusalem would be destroyed. Because of its rulers’ wickedness, this city would become a plowed field. Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.) was moved by such warnings, as well as by the destruction of Israel, to crack down on pagan worship in his kingdom. Renouncing idolatry, he even removed from the Temple a bronze serpent ascribed to Moses.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judea a century later. By then, the Assyrian empire had crumbled. Babylon was the new military superpower. Jeremiah’s reputation as a prophet of God was established by his fateful warnings that resistance to Babylon would have dire consequences. However, religious Jews now found hope in his prediction that the Temple in Jerusalem would some day be rebuilt. God would offer a new covenant with his people inscribing obedience in their hearts. The House of David would again enjoy God’s blessing.
The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah were public figures whose views were known to many people before the events which they prophesied came to pass. This helped to establish them as authentic bearers of God’s message. Isaiah (740-710 B.C.) advised the kings of Judah not to make alliances with Egypt but instead recognize Assyria’s invincible power. The King of Judah, Ahaz, did submit to Assyrian rule, thereby avoiding the harsh fate that had befallen the northern Kingdom. A later king of Judah rebelled against Assyrian rule and incurred the wrath of its king Sennacherib, who demanded Jerusalem’s surrender. Isaiah assured the king that Jerusalem would not be taken. Sennacherib suddenly ceased hostilities and returned home. This turn of events brought Isaiah much prestige.
Jeremiah (628-587 B.C.) was a political opponent of kings ruling in Jerusalem. Kings of Babylon then threatened the Jewish nation. Jeremiah preached that God meant to use Babylon as an instrument for punishing Judah. A series of Judahite kings opposed Babylon. Each time they rebelled, Jeremiah preached that resistance to Babylon was useless. King Jehoiachin threw Jeremiah in prison for spreading this defeatist message. But the Babylonians easily overcame Judahite resistance. After their last attempt at rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took some of the Jewish population to Babylon in chains. Jeremiah was vindicated.
After the Jewish nation was destroyed, prophetic writing took a different direction. The prophet Ezekiel (593-73 B.C.) was among those Jews sent to Babylon in the first wave of deportations in 597 B.C. Like Jeremiah, he had prophesied Jerusalem’s destruction. Yet, his sights were set upon restoration of the Temple. God would revive Israel’s dry bones so the entire world would know he was God.
Another prophet of this period, known as “Second Isaiah” (writer of Isaiah, chapters 40 through 66), also predicted that the Jews would be allowed to return home from captivity. He even mentioned their deliverer, Cyrus, by name. The text of Second Isaiah provided strong support for monotheism. The miraculous delivery of the Jews from captivity indicated that Jehovah was god not only of the Jews but of all peoples.
A dialogue between prophecy and live history
What was happening then was that a body of prophetic literature was being created that would set the stage for other, more important events. On one hand, we had historical events concerning the Jewish nation. We had written histories of those events. On the other hand, we had a kind of history that anticipated the future. The prophetic writings, begun with Amos but continued with other writers, comprised an unfinished tapestry that depicted the future Kingdom of God in ever increasing detail.
In the earlier period, there had been a dialogue between the two - historical experience and prophetic expectation - in which prophetic writings responded to events in history. That sent truth on a collision course. The previous prophets, inspired by God, could not be wrong; but neither could the facts of history. A new prophetic message needed to reconcile the two types of truth.
In a middle period, religious prophecy spun off into a world of its own. Future events were being proposed in ever more miraculous terms, with no history to follow. In a late stage, the career of Jesus brought this process to an end. Jesus was crucified and resurrected, a community of followers arose, the church emerged, and history of another sort was made on a grander scale. Christianity became a factor in world history.
Let us see what the early prophets each contributed to expectations of the coming Kingdom.
The prophet Amos began by challenging the idea that the “Day of the Lord” would be a time when God smote Israel’s enemies. No, Amos said, because God is ethical, he would punish the Jewish nation as well for its wickedness. “Fools who long for the day of the Lord!, “ he wrote; “what will the day of the Lord mean to you? It will be darkness, not light. It will be as when a man runs from a lion, and a bear meets him, or turns into a house and leans his hand on the wall, and a snake bites him. The day of the Lord is indeed darkness, not light, a day of gloom with no dawn.” (Amos 5: 18-20)
The people of Israel trusted that God would treat them kindly because they had performed the rituals required in Yahweh’s cult. Disagreeing, Amos quoted God: “I hate, I spurn your pilgrim-feasts; I will not delight in your sacred ceremonies. When you present your sacrifices and offerings I will not accept them, nor look on the buffaloes of your shared-offerings. Spare me the sound of your songs; I cannot endure the music of your lutes. (Instead) let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5: 21-24) This was an important change in religious worship. No longer might one cultivate God’s favor by performing rituals. It was more important to be a good person.
Still, Amos predicted that God would not destroy Israel for all time. The nation would fall to its enemies but a part of the people would be saved, those who had remained faithful to God’s commandments. Those persons who were pleasing in God’s sight would survive the nation’s destruction while the wicked perished. And so a kind of sifting would take place. “I will not wipe out the family of Jacob root and branch, says the Lord. No; I will give my orders, I will shake Israel to and fro through all the nations as a sieve is shaken to and fro and not one pebble falls to the ground. ... On that day I will restore David’s fallen house; I will repair its gaping walls and restore its ruins; I will rebuild it as it was long ago.” (Amos 9: 9-11)
Amos was saying that God would allow foreign enemies to defeat the nation of Israel; but, because of his favor, that nation would later be revived. A new nation, populated by survivors of the earlier calamity, would arise under the leadership of David’s descendants. Purged of its wickedness, this nation would again enjoy prosperity.
Like Amos, Isaiah accepted that the future would bring immediate hardship before the Jewish nation was restored. God would need first to punish his people for their sins. In the end, however, a surviving remnant of righteous persons could look forward to establishment of a new “kingdom of peace” ruled by David’s descendant and armed with the spirit of God.
In Isaiah, the concept of a Messiah is put forth for the first time. “Messiah” means “the Anointed”. As the prophet Samuel had anointed David’s head with oil, so the ruler of God’s kingdom would be anointed with divine spirit. This ruler would be genealogically descended from King David. God was thereby restoring the kingdom which had allowed itself to lapse into sin. He would intervene in human history to create a kingdom of lasting peace.
These words of Isaiah ring through the ages: “Then a shoot shall grow from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall spring from his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and power...” (Isaiah 11:1-2) “For a boy has been born for us, a son given to us to bear the symbol of dominion on his shoulder; and he shall be called in purpose wonderful, in battle God-like, Father for all time, Prince of peace. Great shall the dominion be, and boundless the peace, bestowed on David’s throne and on his kingdom, to establish it and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now and forevermore.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Another new element is the idea that on the Day of the Lord nature will be miraculously transformed. Wild animals will be tamed even as men give up their warlike ways. In the coming Kingdom of Peace, “the wolf shall live with the sheep, and the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall grow up together, and a little child shall lead them ... the lion shall eat straw like cattle; the infant shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the young child dance over the viper’s net. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain..” (Isaiah 11: 6-9) Supernatural themes will play an increasing role in Jewish prophecy.
In the terrible period preceding Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah was continually preaching that resistance to the Babylonians was futile. But, again, the punishment would be temporary. The present misfortunes would be a period of testing which would be followed by a Kingdom of Peace.
The new age would begin with the return of those exiled to Babylon. The new Kingdom of Peace would again be ruled by a scion of David. “The days are now coming, says the Lord, when I will make a righteous Branch spring from David’s line, a king who shall rule wisely, maintaining law and justice in the land.” (Jeremiah 23: 5) “I will heal and cure Judah and Israel, and will let my people see an age of peace and security. I will restore their fortunes and build them again as they once were. I will cleanse them of all the wickedness and sin that they have committed; I will forgive all the evil deeds they have done in rebellion against me. This city will win me a name and praise and glory before all the nations on earth, when they hear of all the blessings I bestow on her.” (Jeremiah 33: 6-9)
Jeremiah foresees that God will make a new covenant with his people. Not only the king but the people, too, will become vehicles for divine spirit. In God’s new covenant with the Jews, laws would be written not on paper or in stone but directly in people’s hearts. “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Although they broke my covenant, I was patient with them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with Israel after those days ... I will set my law within them and write it on their hearts; I will become their God and they shall become my people. No longer need they teach one another to know the Lord; all of them, high and low alike, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their wrongdoing and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31: 31-34)
The law of Moses is here being replaced by a new spiritualized covenant, where obedience is effected by spirit rather than through human effort. God will forgive sins, not exact punishment. Yet, while a descendant of David will rule this kingdom, God will have mercy on the Gentiles, too. He will allow them to participate in the Kingdom on equal terms with the Jews. While Judah remains surrounded by “evil neighbors ...yet, If they (the neighbors) learn the ways of my people, swearing by my name ... they shall form families among my people.” (Jeremiah 12: 16) So Gentiles, too, will learn to worship the One True God.
Ezekiel, a prophet of the Exile, was first to write prophecies with elaborate mechanisms. He deals with the problem that the Kingdom resurrected after the exiles return from captivity might contain ungodly persons among those who have survived Jerusalem’s destruction. His solution is to suppose that only the good have survived. Therefore, the post-exilic kingdom will consist only of righteous persons, the bad having perished.
In advancing that theory, Ezekiel offers a vision of Jerusalem before it was captured. He imagines hearing God tell a scribe dressed in linen: “Go through the city, through Jerusalem ... and put a mark on the foreheads of those who groan and lament over the abominations practiced there.” To the six men carrying battle-axes who accompanied this scribe, God says: “Follow him through the city and kill without pity; spare no one. Kill and destroy them all, old men and young, girls, little children and women, but touch no one who bears the mark.” (Ezekiel 9: 4-6)
Thus, a moral selection would take place before Jerusalem fell. Only those who passed the test lived to be deported to Babylon so that only morally fit persons would still be around. There would be no further need to distinguish between righteous and unrighteous persons awaiting the Kingdom of God. The problem of determining a “righteous remnant” was solved.
Being a member of the Jewish priesthood, Ezekiel did not share Amos’ disdain of ritual. Once the Jews returned to Judaea, God would restore the temple worship at Jerusalem and accept sacrifices. Ezekiel had particular ideas about the design of the temple. The city of Jerusalem would be laid out in a large square with three gates on each side. The restored temple would be built within a smaller square in the center of the city. Water would gush from a spring underneath the temple and proceed to the Dead Sea whose salty water would miraculously become fresh and support many fish. Along its banks would grow fruit-bearing trees whose leaves would never wither. Here, again, one finds miraculous or supernatural elements entering into prophecies about the restoration of Israel.
Ezekiel is an important source of prophecies concerning the battle of Armageddon. Once God’s kingdom was established, an enemy would attack it from the north. This was “Gog from the land of Magog.” The evil army would descend upon Palestine where God had arranged that this force would be destroyed and its host become a meal for the birds and beasts that inhabit the mountainous areas.
The purpose of this event would be to exhibit God’s power in the world. “I will send fire on Magog and on those who live undisturbed in the coasts and islands, and they shall know that I am the Lord. My holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel and will no longer let it be profaned; the nations shall know that in Israel I, the Lord, am holy.” (Ezekiel 39: 6-7)
Second Isaiah (or “Deutero-Isaiah”) was a person writing under the name of the prophet Isaiah who actually lived during the Captivity. He was the author of the 40th through 62nd chapters in the Book of Isaiah. We can date the time of his writing because Second Isaiah referred to the exile and the fact that the Persian emperor Cyrus had allowed the temple to be rebuilt. (Isaiah 44:28) Despite his anonymity, this writer was one of the most important prophets of the Old Testament. He made a case for religious monotheism and presented a portrait of God’s suffering servant which bore an uncanny resemblance to Jesus.
Second Isaiah envisions that God will lead those who return to Jerusalem. Nature exhibits miracles as the exiles return home. “There is a voice that cries: Prepare a road for the Lord through the wilderness, clear a highway across the desert for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill be brought down; rugged places shall be made smooth and mountain-ranges become a plain. Thus shall the glory of the Lord be revealed, and all mankind together shall see it.” (Isaiah 40: 3-5)
“Come out of Babylon, hasten away from the Chaldaeans ... tell them, ‘The Lord has ransomed his servant Jacob.’ Though he led them through desert places they suffered no thirst, for them he made water run from the rock, for them he cleft the rock and streams gushed forth.” (Isaiah 48: 21)
Further evidence of Jehovah’s unique power is the fact that Gentile nations will aid in the exiles’ return to Judaea and in the restoration of the temple. They will help to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and will themselves offer gifts to God. “Foreigners shall rebuild your walls and their kings shall be your servants ... Your gates shall be open continually, they shall never be shut day or night, that through them may be brought the wealth of nations ... The wealth of Lebanon shall come to you, pine, fir, and boxwood, all together, to bring glory to my holy sanctuary, to honor the place where my feet rest. The sons of your oppressors shall come forward to do homage, all who reviled you shall bow low at your feet; they shall call you the city of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 60: 10-11, 13-14)
Second Isaiah also writes: “Though the mountains move and the hills shake, my love shall be immovable and never fail, and my covenant of peace shall not be shaken.” (Isaiah 54: 10) “I will make a covenant with you, this time for ever, to love you faithfully as I loved David. I made him a witness to all races, a prince and instructor of peoples; and you in turn shall summon nations you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall come running to you, because the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, has glorified you.” (Isaiah 55: 3-5)
Earlier prophets had interpreted the Exile and other misfortunes in terms of God’s punishing the Jews to cleanse them of their sins. The fact that God has dispersed the Jewish people among Gentile nations now opens up another interpretation. The Jews’ painful experience has nevertheless created an opportunity for Gentiles to learn about Jehovah, the one true God. Their survival during the Exile and King Cyrus’ edict of tolerance have given the Jews renewed confidence in the uniqueness of their God. In light of his power, Cyrus feels compelled to do God’s will.
The idea that the Jews have suffered captivity for the sake of exhibiting their God gives rise to the image of God’s suffering servant: “He was despised, he shrank from the sight of men, tormented and humbled by suffering; we despised him, we held him of no account, a thing from which men turn away their eyes. Yet on himself he bore our sufferings, our torments he endured, while we counted him smitten by God, struck down by disease and misery; but he was pierced for our transgressions, tortured for our iniquities; and the chastisement he bore is health for us and by his scourging we are healed. We had all strayed like sheep, each of us had gone his own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.” (Isaiah 53: 3-6)
Who was this suffering servant? Was it Jesus? Schweitzer and others believe that it initially referred to the corporate people of Israel. Yet, the image of Christ’s crucifixion comes through: “He was afflicted, he submitted to be struck down, and did not open his mouth; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter, like a ewe that is dumb before the shearers. Without protection, without justice, he was taken away; and who gave a thought to his fate, how he was cut off from the world of living men, stricken to the death for my people’s transgression? He was assigned a grave with the wicked, a burial-place among the refuse of mankind, though he had done no violence and spoken no word of treachery. Yet the Lord took thought for his tortured servant and healed him who had made himself a sacrifice for sin ... and in his hand the Lord’s cause shall prosper. After all his pains he shall be bathed in light, after his disgrace he shall be fully vindicated; so shall he, my servant, vindicate many, himself bearing the penalty of their guilt. (Isaiah 53: 7-11)
Second Isaiah follows the scenario of a divine kingdom that will follow the period of suffering in which the Jews presently found themselves. A descendant of David would rule God’s kingdom and a new covenant would replace the previous one. God required ethical conduct to be pleasing to Him. Individuals must be ethical, not just nations. It was important to observe the Sabbath, show concern for one’s neighbor, and be humble before God.
The last four chapters of the Book of Isaiah were not written by Second Isaiah but by another prophet who lived toward the end of the Exile. While the themes of these chapters are consistent with the ones in chapters 40 through 62, they present the coming of God’s kingdom in even more miraculous terms. This prophet writes of a new creation. “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth. Former things shall no more be remembered nor shall they be called to mind. Rejoice and be filled with delight, you boundless realms which I create.” (Isaiah 65: 17-18) The transformation of nature, described in earlier prophecies, here reaches a climax.
some post-exilic prophets
Generally speaking, the major prophets were ones who lived before and during the Exile. However, there were a number of others in the following century who also made important contributions to the prophetic picture that set the stage for Jesus’ career. Among them were Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Joel, Isaiah chapters 24-27, and Zechariah chapters 9-14.
These prophets all lived in the period following the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. The first wave arrived around 536 B.C. The restored “Second Temple” was dedicated in 516 B.C. Haggai and Zechariah both wrote during this time. Malachi, whose writings comprise the last book of the Old Testament, lived around 450-430 B.C. At this time, Judaea remained a province in the Persian empire.
After King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 538 B.C., he issued an imperial edict allowing the Jews to return home. But instead of the miraculous events that had been predicted, conflict developed between the Jews returning from Babylon and Samarians settled in Judah.
The Babylonian Jews would not let the Samarians participate in rebuilding the temple at Jerusalem. The latter denounced the Babylonian emigres to the Persian court for seeking independence of Persia so that the emperor withdrew permission to rebuild the temple. Darius I lifted the ban in 520 B.C., the second year of his reign. Construction of the temple was complete four years later. The returned exiles were then under the leadership of Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, and of Joshua, the high priest.
There was a belief that God might restore his favor to the Jews if they faithfully observed requirements of the Covenant. Persons of mixed heritage such as the Samarians were seen as a threat to religious purity. In this xenophobic environment, a major concern was intermarriage between Gentiles and Jews. In 458 B.C., the Levite priest Ezra, along with a large retinue, arrived from Babylon. He brought with him an agenda of zealously enforcing religious rules. Citing archaic laws, Ezra and other leaders forced many Jews who had married Gentiles to become divorced. The non-Jewish spouses and children were expelled from the community.
Nehemiah, who had been the cupbearer of Artaxerxes I, returned to Palestine in 444 B.C. bearing letters of appointment as Governor of Judah. An important task was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah and Ezra spearheaded the process of religious cleansing. The Persian emperor, Artaxerxes, had granted Ezra a charter allowing him to make the Torah law of the land for Jews in Judah and other eastern provinces. However, the Torah first had to be published. For its publication, it had to be officially compiled. So Ezra became associated with the process of codifying the Torah. These sacred scriptures allowed the Jews to retain their religious identity while remaining a people politically subservient to others.
Haggai and Zechariah
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah, writing at the time when the Temple was rebuilt, interpreted the turbulent events preceding Darius’ ascension to the throne as a sign that the Persian empire was breaking up and the Kingdom of God would soon arrive. Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, was thought to be the promised Messiah.
Haggai wrote: “You have sown much but reaped little ... Go up into the hills, fetch timber, and build a house acceptable to me, where I can show my glory.” (Haggai 1: 6-9) “Take heart, all you people ... Begin the work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Hosts, and my spirit is present among you ... One thing more: I will shake heaven and earth, sea and land, I will shake all nations; the treasure of all nations shall come here, and I will fill this house with glory.” (Haggai 2: 4-7)
“Tell Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, I will shake heaven and earth; I will overthrow the thrones of kings, break the power of heathen realms, overturn chariots and their riders ... On that day, says the Lord of Hosts, I will take you, Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, my servant, and will wear you as a signet-ring; for you it is that I have chosen.” (Haggai 2: 21-23)
Zechariah had a vision of men on horseback roaming the land to learn what the moral condition of its inhabitants might be. “How long, O Lord of Hosts, wilt thou withhold thy compassion from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah?,” an angel asked God. God replied: “I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion ... My cities shall again overflow with good things; once again the Lord will comfort Zion, once again he will make Jerusalem the city of his choice.” (Zechariah 1: 12, 15, 17) “Jerusalem shall be a city without walls, so numerous shall be the men and cattle within it. I will be a wall of fire round her, says the Lord.” (Zechariah 2: 4-5)
“This is the word of the Lord concerning Zerubbabel: Neither by force of arms nor by brute strength, but by my spirit! How does a mountain, the greatest mountain, compare with Zerubbabel? It is no higher than a plain ... Zerubbabel with his own hands laid the foundation of this house and with his own hands he shall finish it. So shall you know that the Lord of Hosts has sent me to you.” (Zechariah 4: 7-9) Zerubbabel’s role in history did not live up to expectations.
Malachi lived in Jerusalem around 450 B.C. This was shortly before Nehemiah and Ezra arrived from Babylon to begin their program of religious cleansing. Previous hopes for a glorious restoration of Judah under the House of David had now faded. Instead, there was a culture of corruption within the Temple. Malachi complained of priests who were sacrificing only those animals with blemishes and were keeping the best ones for themselves. He also complained of Jewish men who were marrying Gentile women. God was not receiving the tithes due him.
In view of this backsliding, Malachi returned to the idea that the Jews needed to be punished for their sins. Prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah had promised that such judgment was behind them and in the future God would show the Jews only mercy and forgiveness. Evidently times had changed.
Malachi, like Amos, wrote of a process of separating good people from bad. Instead of sifting grain, he envisioned a refiner’s fire. The righteous, like a precious metal, would survive God’s fiery judgment, while ungodly persons would be destroyed. “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand firm when he appears? He is like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap; he will take his seat, refining and purifying; he will purify the Levites and cleanse them like gold and silver, and so they shall be fit to bring offerings to the Lord.” (Malachi 3: 2-3)
The most important point in Malachi’s prophecy was the idea that before the Day of the Lord the prophet Elijah would return to earth. That great prophet of the 8th century, B.C., had not died but had ascended to Heaven in a whirlwind. (2 Kings 2: 12) It was fitting, then, that God would send Elijah back to earth in the same manner before the day of the Lord. “Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear a path before me.” (Malachi 3: 1) “Look, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will reconcile fathers to sons and sons to fathers, lest I come and put the land under a ban to destroy it.” (Malachi 4: 5-6)
Malachi’s is a grim message. God’s people have again gone astray. They have disregarded the Law of Moses. More punishment lay ahead. “The day comes, glowing like a furnace; all the arrogant and the evildoers shall be chaff, and that day when it comes shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of Hosts, it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings, and you shall break loose like calves released from the stall. On that day that I act, you shall trample down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Malachi 4: 1-3)
Joel, Isaiah 24-27, Zechariah 9-14
After Malachi came a number of prophets who attached their writings to previous prophesies or wrote under another’s name. Since the canon was now closed, they could not otherwise have been included in the sacred scripture. The prophet Joel lived around 400 B.C. - fifty years after Malachi. The authors of the 24th through 27th chapters of Isaiah and of the 9th through 14th chapters of Zechariah lived in the period when the Persian empire was overthrown by Greek armies under Alexander the Great. Yet, these prophets continued to look forward to the coming Day of the Lord.
Joel resumed the argument that God would defend his people Israel despite their many faults. On the Day of Yahweh, they would be protected from the Gentiles who mocked their God. These Gentiles would be brought to judgment in the valley of Jehoshaphat. All who called upon the name of the Lord would be saved. An important addition in Joel was the idea that the Day of Yahweh would be marked by miracles and an outpouring of spirit. It is this scripture which Peter quoted at Pentecost.
“Thereafter the day shall come when I will pour out my spirit on all mankind; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men see visions; I will pour out my spirit in those days even upon slaves and slave-girls. I will show portents in the sky and on earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who invokes the Lord by name shall be saved: for when the Lord gives the word there shall yet be survivors on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem a remnant whom the Lord will call.” (Joel 2: 28-31)
The author of Isaiah, chapters 24 through 27 was in general agreement with Joel. This prophet contributed two notable elements to the scenario of events relating to the final days. First, he wrote that God would punish the heavenly beings which had become disobedient. (The idea of fallen angels comes from the Zoroastrian cosmology although these beings may also have been a product of the mating between earthly women and sons of God mentioned in Genesis.) “On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth, herded together, close packed like prisoners in a dungeon; shut up in gaol, after a long time they shall be punished.” (Isaiah 24: 21-22)
His second contribution to prophecy is the idea of a miraculous feast prepared for all people on Mount Zion. “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will prepare a banquet of rich fare for all the peoples, a banquet of wines well matured and richest fare, well-matured wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25: 6) Those inhabiting the Holy Mountain would be spared of death. “On this mountain the Lord will swallow up the veil that shrouds all the peoples, the pall thrown over all the nations; he will swallow up death for ever.” (Isaiah 25: 7) The first passage supports what became known as the Messianic banquet, foreshadowed by the Last Supper. This was a feast in Heaven after God’s kingdom had been established.
Chapters 9 through 14 in the Book of Zechariah contain many passages quoted in the Gospels:
“Rejoice, rejoice, daughter of Zion; shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem; for see, your king is coming to you, his cause won, his victory gained, humble and mounted on an ass.” (Zechariah 9:9)
"On that day, I will set about destroying all the nations that come against Jerusalem, but I will pour a spirit of pity and compassion into the line of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Then they shall look on me, on him whom they have pierced, and shall wail over him as over an only child, and shall grieve for him bitterly as for a first-born son.” (Zechariah 12: 9-10)
“Then they weighed out my wages, thirty pieces of silver.” (Zechariah 11: 13)
“Alas for the worthless shepherd who abandons the sheep; a sword shall fall on his arm and on his right eye.” (Zechariah 11: 17)
“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” (Zechariah 13: 7)
Zechariah 9-13 follows Ezekiel’s lead in prophesying that a fountain of living water will flow from the temple to the sea. It is a fountain to remove sins. “On that day a fountain will be opened for the line of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to remove all sin and impurity ... living water shall issue from Jerusalem, half flowing to the eastern sea and half to the western ... Then the Lord shall become king over all the earth.” (Zechariah 13: 1, 14: 8-9)
The same writer envisions that God will destroy all the nations that make war on Jerusalem. “On that day a great panic, sent by the Lord, shall fall on them ... the wealth of the surrounding nations will be swept away ... And slaughter shall be the fate of horse and mule, camel and ass, the fate of every beast in those armies. “ (Zechariah 14: 13-15)
The survivors of this attack on Jerusalem “shall come up year by year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the pilgrim-feast of Tabernacles ... Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the Lord of Hosts, and all who sacrifice shall come and shall take some of them and boil the flesh in them. So when that time comes, no trader shall again be seen in the house of the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 14: 16, 21)
Part III Daniel and the Apocalyptists of Late Judaism
Historical Background: Persian rule gives way to Greek
By the mid 5th Century B.C., when Nehemiah and Ezra lived, it had been a century and a half since Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. The Jews had remained a culturally distinct people. On the other hand, the link with prophecy was weakening. God seemed no longer to be speaking to the Jews in their own time. The prophet Malachi reflects the discouragement which religious Jews felt at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. After Malachi, the Biblical canon was closed.
Then, after another century of subjection to Persian rule, a remarkable political event occurred. Alexander the Great, commanding Macedonian and Greek armies, conquered the Persian empire in 331 B.C. Persian rule in Judaea was extinguished. Following Alexander’s death ten years later, Judaea fell under Egyptian control. Once again, it was caught in a dynastic struggle between powerful empires to the north and south, ruled by Alexander’s former generals. The southern empire of Egypt was ruled by successors of Ptolemy I; the northern Syrian empire by successors of Seleucus Nicator. The Egyptians controlled Palestine until 198 B.C. Then it was the Syrians’ turn for the next thirty years.
As with the Persian empire, Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasty was tolerant of Jewish religion. Many Jews settled in Egypt and became hellenized. Even under the Syrians, they found relatively tolerant conditions. Meanwhile, the Egyptian and Syrian dynasties fought each other for control of possessions in the east Mediterranean region. Territories such as Phoenicia, Sicily, and Cyprus often changed hands. The Syrian power grew stronger over time.
The Seleucid emperor Antiochus III (223-187 B.C.) waged war over a vast area. He forced the Parthian king to become a vassal and beat an Indian prince into submission. In 202 B.C., he went to war with Egypt for the sixth time. Judaea became a Syrian possession when the peace treaty was signed four years later. Antiochus then made the mistake of taking on Rome. The Romans defeated him in 190 B.C. at Magnesia-under-Sipylus, setting up Syria’s dismemberment. Asia Minor (Turkey) was lost. Armenia and Bactria became independent states.
While the Seleucid empire existed, there was financial pressure to pay the post-war indemnity to Rome. Most of the wealth lay in temples spread about the empire. The Syrian emperors were forced to pillage these temples to raise money. Such actions aroused the ire of local populations. In Judaea, they stirred tensions between rich and poor. The rich, who controlled the temple wealth, tended to be sympathetic to Greek authority. The more numerous poor were Jewish traditionalists clinging to the Law.
In 175 B.C., a group of Hellenizing Jews asked the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) to turn the temple-state in Jerusalem into a Greek-style city to be renamed Antioch. The emperor was only too happy to oblige. It had been the policy of Syrian emperors to create associations of Hellenic city-states whose common Greek culture would strengthen the empire. Also, the Hellenized priesthoods at the different temples outdid each other in offering bribes to the emperor.
In 169 B.C., emperor Antiochus, on his way to Egypt to fight a war, pillaged the Jerusalem Temple with the high priest’s consent. When Rome signaled its displeasure in regard to the Egyptian expedition, Antiochus changed his mind. Returning to Syria by way of Judaea, he learned of an insurrection by anti-Hellenist Jews. While the rebellion was directed against the Temple priests, the emperor interpreted it as defiance of himself. He built a fort in Jerusalem and took military action.
In December of 167 B.C., Antiochus IV Epiphanes (meaning “the God Manifest”) hellenized worship in the Temple. His new cult identified Jehovah with the Olympian god Zeus. Zeus was represented by a statue in the Temple resembling the emperor himself. This act, more than any other, galvanized anti-Hellenic sentiment. Religious Jews struck back through military actions directed by Judas Maccabeus, son of the priest Mattathias.
Historical Background: Maccabean Rule
After killing an agent of the emperor, Judas Maccabeus and his four brothers fled to the mountains where they assembled a group of Jewish guerillas. For six years this army fought battles against the Syrian forces. At length, they recaptured and reconsecrated the Temple, forcing children of Hellenizing Jews to be circumcised.
So the Hasmonean dynasty came into being. Rome entered into a treaty with this dynasty in 161 B.C. However, Judas Maccabeus was killed in the following year when a Syrian army under Demetrius I “Soter” (“saviour’) again ravished the countryside forcing him to flee to the mountains.
After Judas’ death, succession to Hasmonean throne fell to the youngest of Mattathias’ sons, Jonathan. Ruling for seventeen years, he was the first of the Hasmonean rulers to assume the dual function of priest and king. Meanwhile, a pretender to the Seleucid throne, Alexander Balas, who claimed to be Antiochus IV’s son, fought for power with Demetrius, a son of emperor Seleucus IV. Jonathan took advantage of their five-year struggle to wrest concessions from Syria. Currying favor both with Demetrius and the Romans, he gradually expelled foreign troops from Judaea.
Jonathan was murdered in 143 B.C. by a Syrian general whom he had thought was his friend. Mattathias’ last remaining son, Simon, then assumed the throne which he occupied for eight years until he, too, was treacherously murdered. It was under Simon’s rule that the Hasmonean dynasty finally took the Seleucid fort in Jerusalem, drove the Syrians out, ended tribute to them, and gained real independence. These were heady days for religious visionaries. A Jewish state again existed in Judaea. Ancient prophesies seemed to be coming to pass.
Meanwhile, groups of patriotic Jews called Pharisees, who were not part of the Temple priesthood, produced new prophetic scriptures envisioning Jewish redemption in the final days. The Book of Daniel, while attributed to an earlier prophet, is one of these. Other writings have recently come to light with the discovery of the “Dead Sea Scrolls”, stashed in a cave near the Essene compound at Qumran.
This was a time when anti-Hellenizing Jews were dividing into religious and political factions. Josephus, the historian, mentions three groups in particular. The Sadducees were right-wing Jews who were well educated and rich; they tended to favor the Epicurean philosophy. The Pharisees were the more conservative of the militant Jews known as “Chassidim” (Hasideans) who wished to purge Jewish religion of foreign influences. They were popular leaders, Stoic in temperament. Finally, there were the radical Chassidim, the Essenes, who pursued a monastic life.
The Sadducees, a Temple aristocracy, accepted the Torah alone. They rejected doctrines such as belief in angels and resurrection of the dead which were products of a so-called “oral law’ revealed to Moses. The Pharisees, more ready to accept religious innovations, appear in a negative light in the Gospels. Historically, however, this group enjoyed much prestige among the Jewish people for their uncompromising stand during difficult times under the Hasmonean rulers. The Pharisees who challenged their Greek-leaning tendencies suffered great persecution.
After Simon Maccabeus was murdered by his son-in-law in 134 B.C., Simon’s surviving son, John Hyrcanus, assumed the throne and ruled for thirty years. Hyrcanus held the dual office of prophet and priest. In the first year of his reign, the Seleucid king Antiochus VII Sidetes reconquered Judaea, ravished Jerusalem, and demanded tribute from the Jews before turning his attention to Parthia. This king was killed by the Parthians in 127 B.C. A struggle for succession ensued between two half-brothers, Antiochus VIII Epiphanes (“Grypus”) and Antiochus IX Philopater (“Cyzicenus”). It lasted until 111 B.C. when they agreed to split the kingdom. Each ruled for another fifteen years.
John Hyrcanus took advantage of the Syrian civil war to reassert control over Judaea. He conquered neighboring peoples such as the Moabites, Samarians, and Idumaeans, giving them a choice between becoming circumcised, going into exile, or being put to the sword. Such zealous proselytizing brought a large increase in the number of persons adhering to Judaism. Around 110 B.C., the Pharisees questioned Hyrcanus’ right to be high priest as well as king. Hyrcanus then turned upon this group of former supporters and persecuted them. The Hasmonean rulers became allied instead with the Sadducees. John Hyrcanus died in 104 B.C.
Aristobulus I, who called himself “the Hellene”, succeeded his father. His short, cruel reign was marked by violence against his own family. A brother, Alexander Jannaeus, ascended to the throne upon his death in 103 B.C. This ruler continued his father’s policy of suppressing the Pharisees while siding with the Sadducees. The Pharisees, who had gained influence with the people, withdrew their support so that Jannaeus had to resort to foreign mercenaries to maintain political control. He died in 76 B.C. after ruling for twenty-five years. His widow, Salome Alexandra, ruled for the next seven years as queen-regent .
The last five years of Jewish independence followed Salome Alexandra’s death in 69 B.C.. First her oldest son, John Hyrcanus II, a supporter of the Pharisees, became king. Then another son, Aristobulus II, seized control with the help of the Sadducees. For a time, there were two Judaean kings supported by different parties. After the Roman general, Pompey, captured Antioch in 65 B.C., both sides appealed to him to intervene in their political dispute. Pompey backed John Hyrcanus II when the Sadducees resisted Roman rule. In 63 B.C., he captured Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, and set up Hyrcanus as a puppet king and high priest. Real power, however, fell into the hands of the Antipater family.
Since the Biblical canon was closed with Malachi in the 5th century B.C., the later prophets had to resort to deception to gain acceptance of their works. The focus, as always, was upon the coming Kingdom of God. One would think that Jewish political independence would stir a wave of Messianic fervor; and so it did. But the Hasmonean dynasty was obviously not what had been expected. These rulers were not descendants of David. To the contrary, they too often had succumbed to Greek culture.
The book of Daniel is an apocalypse, which is a prophecy published under the name a revered religious figure living in a time before the actual writer. Its “prediction” of events therefore has the advantage of historical hindsight. Typically, the author writes a history of events already known and then finishes the work with a scenario of future events. The reader, not knowing that the author is writing under a pseudonym, assumes that the earlier part of the work is also prophesy. Since its predictions have come true to an uncanny degree, the reader assumes that the author has prophetic powers and, therefore, the rest of the story will also happen.
Daniel, the historical figure, lived in the 6th century B.C. at the time of the Babylonian Captivity. He was a page in the court of Nebuchadnezzar famous for his ability to interpret dreams. Enjoying God’s favor, he escaped from a lion’s den. Daniel later became governor of Babylon. In contrast, the anonymous writer of the Book of Daniel lived in the 2nd century B.C. during the period of the Maccabean rebellion when religious Jews led by the sons of Mattathias challenged the Greek Seleucid empire. We can date the writing precisely because this writer mentions the reconsecration of the Temple in December 165, but not the death of the Seleucid emperor Antiochus in December 165. One event was known but the other not.
The core of Daniel’s prophecy consists of several visions regarding political empires that rose and fell in the Middle East. There were four empires, each symbolized in animal form: The first, Babylon, appeared in the form of a lion with eagle’s wings. The Median empire, which succeeded Babylon’s, was presented as a bear “half crouching .. (with) ... three ribs in its mouth.” Then came a four-headed “beast like a leopard with four bird’s wings on its back.” This was the Persian empire. The fourth and final beast, of unknown species, was “dreadful and grisly, exceedingly strong, with great iron teeth and bronze claws.” This beast also had ten horns, including a small horn in the middle with “the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke proud words.” This was the Greek empire of Alexander the Great and his successors. The empire of Antiochus Epiphanes was one of the ten horns, the most fearsome. (See Daniel 7: 1-8.)
The succession of beast-like empires described the course of political events between the 6th and 2nd centuries B.C., when the Jews were ruled by foreign powers. During that time, the prophets were promising an the end to those troubling times. A Kingdom of God would arrive, replacing the earlier kingdoms. Daniel kept looking at the beasts in the vision. While he was looking, “thrones were set in place and one ancient in years took his seat ... Flames of fire were his throne and its wheels blazing fire; a flowing river of fire streamed out before him ... The court sat, and the books were opened.” (Daniel 7: 9-10) And, while Daniel watched, the fourth beast was killed and its carcass was destroyed. Some of the other beasts were allowed to remain alive for a time.
“I was still watching in visions of the night,” wrote Daniel, “and I saw one like a man coming with the clouds of heaven; he approached the Ancient in Years and was presented to him. Sovereignty and glory and kingly power were given to him, so that all people and nations of every language should serve him; his sovereignty was to be an everlasting sovereignty which should not pass away, and his kingly power such as should never be impaired.” (Daniel 7:13-14)
What did the vision mean? Most analysts believe that the four animal-like images represented the successive empires that had ruled Judaea up to that point. There were the Babylonians, Medians, Persians, and finally the Greeks. (Some scholars think that Rome was the fourth beast and the second was a combination of Media and Persia.) The Greek empire of Antiochus Epiphanes IV was the beast that was killed. But then came an empire with a human image. This person, “one like a man”, was the Messiah. (“One like a man” is also termed “son of man”.) A kingdom ruled by the Messiah would succeed the four earthly empires and would last forever. The natural order of existence would give way to the supernatural, which was under God’s control.
In itself, the term, “son of man”, does not denote the Messiah or any other particular being but merely a human being. Ezekiel used it this way and so does Daniel. However, in the context of Daniel’s vision of the four earthly kingdoms followed by an eternal Kingdom, “son of man”, or “one like a man”, assumes a special significance. This person is a divinely appointed figure who rules the Kingdom of God. Note that this interpretation represents a departure from earlier prophecies where the ruler is a descendant of David ruling over a revived Jewish state. In Daniel’s scheme, God turns over kingly authority to a supernatural “son of man”.
A prevalent view among Biblical scholars is that, in Daniel, this Messianic figure is a preexistent being who was sent down from heaven to assume a particular role in God’s kingdom. However, it was also possible that the Messiah would be someone who started as a man and was then raised to become the ruler of a supernatural kingdom. So the question arises whether the Messiah graduated from being a man to assume a supernatural state or he was always supernatural? In either case, the figure who rules over the heavenly kingdom is supernatural rather than human.
Daniel adds two other details to the scenario of the final days. First is the idea that right before God’s kingdom arrives, humanity will experience a period of unprecedented stress and suffering. In theological parlance, this is the “pre-Messianic tribulation”. It is a key sign indicating that the Kingdom of God is near. Many believe that, for the writer of Daniel, the persecution experienced under the Seleucid Antiochus Epiphanes IV was that tribulation. The “saints” (righteous Jews) were indeed “delivered into his (Antiochus’) power for a time ...” (Daniel 7: 25) Alexander’s Greek empire, split between many kings after his death, signified the “fourth beast” which had ten horns.
The second detail arises from a description of events when the time of the earthly turmoil abruptly ends. “At that moment Michael shall appear, Michael the great captain, who stands guard over your fellow-countrymen; and there will be a time of distress such as has never been since they became a nation till that moment. But at that moment your people will be delivered, every one who is written in the book: many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will wake, some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of eternal abhorrence.” (Daniel 12: 1-2)
Daniel’s vision is here introducing the resurrection of the dead. Isaiah 24-27, writing around 300 B.C., had broached the same idea in these words: “On this mountain the Lord ... will swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25: 7) “But thy dead live, their bodies will rise again. They that sleep in the earth will awake and shout for joy; for thy dew is a dew of sparkling light, and the earth will bring those long dead to birth again.” (Isaiah 26: 19) Daniel now ties the idea of resurrecting the dead to deliverance of the righteous Jews when the Archangel Michael appears. The dead are resurrected at the time that the Kingdom of God arrives.
Why were the dead resurrected? It was a matter of simple justice. The prophets had been predicting the Kingdom of God for centuries but it kept being delayed. The righteous of each generation that preceded the Kingdom were therefore deprived of the opportunity to gain entrance to it. But, if they were resurrected from the dead, these people could gain entrance. Otherwise, only those who were still alive when the Kingdom arrived would benefit from the prophetic promise.
The religion of Zoroaster
When the Jews were deported to Babylon, they became exposed to foreign cultures. There was later a period of more than two hundred years in which the Jewish people were subject to Persia. While tolerant of their subject peoples’ religions, the Persian empire had adopted the religion of Zoroaster (Zarathustra) as its state religion. Like Jewish prophecy, this religion included a vision of the final days in which the conflicting forces were morally defined. Considering that the Jews found Persian culture to be relatively benign, it is not surprising that Jewish religion absorbed many influences from Zoroastrianism.
Zoroaster was a religious philosopher who appeared in Bactria (present-day Afghanistan) between 650 and 600 B.C. After wandering for several years in search of a royal patron, he persuaded the Persian king Vishtaspa to accept his religious system. The new religion spread fast. Its basic concept was that life on earth reflected a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. The supreme god, Ahura-Mazdah, who had created the world, was the only real god. He led the forces of good against the evil forces led by Angra-Mainyu (Ahriman) to win a great victory in the final days. Zoroaster’s scheme of moral dualism also applied to daily life.
Like Jewish prophecy, the writings of Zoroaster presented a scenario of the last days. Angels figured prominently in that event. Former gods aligned with Ahura-Mazdah became angels siding with the forces of good. The gods worshiped by nomadic bandits became demons. There were hierarchies of angels on both sides. Zoroastrianism held that the struggle between good and evil would culminate in a climactic event in which the evil forces would be destroyed and judgment would be pronounced on them. The Zoroastrian cosmology also included a Messiah.
Albert Schweitzer believed that Zoroastrianism’s most important contribution to Jewish religious thought was “the indispensable idea of resurrection as a prelude to participation in the Kingdom of God.” The Zoroastrian religion held that, after death, the souls of righteous persons would be allowed to cross the Cinvat Bridge to a heavenly domain where they would “enjoy the food and drink of immortality.” The souls of evil persons would not be allowed across that bridge but would instead experience endless torment. Alternatively, all souls might rise together at the end of the world.
The two views could be reconciled by proposing that souls of the departed experienced a temporary state of bliss (or torment) until the end of the world when these souls were reunited with their bodies in a general resurrection of the dead and were then judged as candidates for admission to the Kingdom of God.
Both the Zoroastrian and late Jewish religions looked forward to a Kingdom of God which would appear at the end of time. Their outlooks were otherwise different. The Jews thought of God as a nationalistic deity who would intervene in human history on their behalf. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, was the product of a particular man who was interested in creating a new civilization leading to God’s kingdom. Unlike Judaism, it shows a concern for cultural progress. In the cosmic struggle between good and evil, humanity is enlisted as God’s ally.
Zoroastrian worship made use of fire. Animal sacrifices were abolished. As in the Book of Malachi, the imagery of fire suggested moral refinement. Religious Jews picked up from Zoroastrianism the idea that on the Day of Judgment the wicked would be destroyed in a burning pit. They also absorbed its cosmology of demons, of angels and archangels arranged in hierarchies, and of Satan as the personification of evil. Daniel’s view that God was surrounded by a host of heavenly beings comes from Zoroaster. So does the idea of the archangel Michael who guards the nations.
Above all, however, Zoroastrianism bequeathed to late Jewish religion the idea of a dualistic struggle taking place in heaven and on earth. It is not just God who enters into the picture, but God battling Satan for mastery of the world. A particular legacy of Zoroastrian thought was its negativity directed toward the human body. Bodily desires and temptations were considered products of the devil needing to be suppressed. The Gnostic idea of torturing the body for the sake of eternal life was a product of Zoroaster’s fierce dualism. The Manichaean religion, at one time a major rival to Christianity, also reflected this point of view.
Historical Background: Judaea in Roman Times
The Antipaters were converts to Judaism from Idumaea in the southern part of Palestine. The original Antipater had given refuge to Hyrcanus II when he was ousted by his brother. His son, also named Antipater, became prime minister under Hyrcanus when the Romans restored that king to power. Julius Caesar, who had defeated Pompey in a power struggle, gave Antipater control over Palestine. The prime minister appointed his own sons, Herod and Phasael, to be provincial governors.
In 37 B.C., the Roman Senate appointed Herod to be King of Judaea. Herod (“the Great”) ruled until 4 B.C. Because of his close ties with the Romans, Herod was opposed by both the Pharisees and Sadducees. Though a Jew, he was hated for his sympathies with Greek culture.
Three sons divided up Herod’s kingdom after his death. Archelaus became ethnarch of Judaea, Samaria, and Idumaea. Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea. A third son, Philip, perhaps the ablest administrator of this group, received Batanaea, northeast of the Sea of Galilee. Augustus Caesar removed Archelaus from office in 6 A.D. after his subjects complained. Judaea was then joined to the Roman province of Syria. A Roman procurator now ruled this province.
The first Judaean procurator, Cyrenius, issued an edict that Jews register their property in preparation for taxation. This precipitated an armed rebellion led by the Zealots. Thousands were executed; their skeletons hung on trees for years. Another violent group, the Sicarii, carried concealed daggers which they used to assassinate their opponents in crowds. It was in this environment that Pontius Pilate became procurator of Judaea in 26 A.D. He was removed ten years later after Samaritans complained of atrocities.
Jesus of Nazareth lived in Galilee, a province ruled by Herod Antipas, the same king who ordered John the Baptist’s beheading. Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover in 30 A.D. That put him in Pilate’s jurisdiction when he was convicted of blasphemy and executed on a cross. Christianity began with news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
In 37 A.D., the Roman emperor Caligula appointed a grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa I, to succeed Philip as tetrarch. An able ruler, he was given control over southern Syria and most of Palestine four years later. He ruled for three years. In 44 A.D., his son, Herod Agrippa II, inherited the kingdom. In the same year, an Egyptian named Theudas proclaimed himself Messiah. He led 30,000 supporters into the desert where many were slaughtered by the Romans.
While Jesus’ followers spread the Gospel by peaceful persuasion, Judaea and neighboring lands seethed with resistance to Roman rule. The situation built up to a head in the period between 68 and 70 A.D., when certain revolutionary groups attempted to defeat the Romans through force of arms. They were hoping to pave the way for a Messiah who would establish God’s supernatural Kingdom. Jewish rebels took control of Jerusalem. The Roman general Vespasian was dispatched there to put down the insurrection. His armies besieged the city. Called back to Rome to become emperor, Vespasian appointed his son Titus to continue the siege.
Jerusalem was occupied by three separate groups of armed insurrectionists, each awaiting the Messiah. They controlled different sections of the city. For eight horrible months, these rival groups inside the besieged city set fire to each others’ food supply, destroyed the royal palace and house of the high priest, and looted or murdered rich individuals, while expecting Messianic intervention. Instead, Roman soldiers broke through the fortifications. The Temple and most of the city were destroyed. Almost the entire population was killed or deported. So began the Jewish Diaspora.
The Kingdom of God in Late Judaism
Certain prophetic writings not included in the Bible had a profound influence upon Jesus’ world view. Showing traces of the Zoroastrian cosmology, they were produced by scribes associated with the Pharisee sect in the century before Christ and continuing until Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 A.D.. After this time, Jewish prophecy became extinct. Rabbinical scholasticism came to dominate Judaism.
The Apocalypse of Enoch and Psalms of Solomon are dated to the first century B.C., shortly before Jesus lived. They might well have influenced Jesus’ thinking. Two works, the Apocalypses of Baruch and of Ezra, could not have been known to Jesus since they were written after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. However, all were products of the Pharisaic culture existing at this time.
The Apocalypse of Enoch was written during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus or his immediate successors, as the persecuted Pharisaic party anxiously anticipated the Kingdom of God. The Psalms of Solomon reflect the situation after Pompey the Great assumed power in Judaea in 64 B.C. The Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra were written by Pharisees in the 1st century A.D., after the Romans had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Their writers are concerned with the question of why God has twice allowed Jerusalem to fall.
All four works were disliked by Jewish rabbis after the fall of Jerusalem. Although they were written in Hebrew, no copies remain in the Hebrew language or in Greek, a language into which they were soon translated. The rabbis would then have nothing to do with apocalypses or Greek texts. Instead, copies of these late-Jewish works have come down to us from Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Armenian translations. They are among the sacred works known as apocryphal writings.
For us, the two earlier works are an important source of information about religious views held in Jesus’ time. They may therefore provide clues as to what Jesus himself was thinking. The two works show disagreement about the Messiah, ruler of God’s Kingdom. The Apocalypse of Enoch, following Daniel, favors the supernatural “Son of Man”. The Psalms of Solomon looks for a human Messiah descended David.
These four products of late-Jewish religious thinking differ from earlier Biblical prophecies in that they do not anticipate that the Kingdom of God will come after a particular event. Rather, they create a scenario of events in which certain conditions must be fulfilled. Once those conditions are met, the Kingdom will follow in due course.
The Apocalypse of Enoch
Enoch, father of Methuselah, was a patriarch who lived before the Flood. Like Elijah, he was taken into heaven without experiencing death. (See Genesis 5: 24) The Apocalypse of Enoch was preserved in an Ethiopic translation from Greek. Like Daniel, the writer of Enoch has visions of world history as humanity approaches the final days. Enoch builds upon the eschatological expectation found in the Book of Daniel. The story goes like this:
In the days preceding the coming of God’s kingdom, the fallen angels (who had mated with earthly women to produce giants) are held prisoner in a pit above a blazing fire awaiting God’s day of judgment, when their fate will be decided. A similar situation confronts stars which have disobeyed God in failing to appear in the night sky. The fallen angels ask Enoch to petition God for mercy. Enoch learns that their petition will not be granted.
Meanwhile, the spirits of the dead are being held in the underworld until Judgment Day. The “righteous dead” and the “spirits of the martyrs”, whose claim to admission into the Kingdom takes precedence over that of the righteous living, have separate places of honor. On the other hand, souls of the wicked can look forward only to eternal damnation. Demons appear before God to accuse men of committing sins. All are awaiting the day of judgment. This day must be postponed until there are enough righteous persons and martyrs to fill a fixed number of positions.
The countdown on the final days begins with an attack on Jerusalem by “kings of the East”, meaning the Medes and Parthians. God has sent angels to stir up these people against Israel. The outbreak of war begins the period of tribulation. The evil peoples, blinded by God, start killing one another. Miraculous disturbances occur in heaven and earth: The rain will cease, and the moon exhibits irregular patterns of motion. Members of the same family attack each other. God has meanwhile appointed angels to stand guard over the righteous who are living in the last generation to make sure no harm comes to them. They must remain alive at the time that the Kingdom of God arrives.
The Kingdom arrives after the period of tribulation. The dead are resurrected, the Son of Man appears, and the Judgment of souls takes place. Enoch accepts Daniel’s view that this Son of Man is an eternal being who has previously remained hidden. He says: “Yea, before the sun and the signs (of the Zodiac) were created, before the stars of the heaven were made, his name (the Messiah’s) was named before the Lord of spirits. He shall be a staff to the righteous and the saints whereon to stay themselves and not fall, and he shall be the light of the Gentiles and the hope of those who are troubled of heart. For this reason has he been chosen and hidden before him (God) before the creation of the world and he will be before him for evermore.” (Enoch 48: 3-6)
In Daniel, God had conducted the Last Judgment. In the Apocalypse of Enoch, that role is turned over to the Son of Man. Both prophecies foresee that the Son of Man will rule God’s Kingdom. Enoch says: “The Elect One ( the Messiah) shall in those days sit on my throne and his mouth shall pour forth all the secrets of wisdom and counsel: for the Lord of spirits has given them to him.” (Enoch 51: 1-3)
“And he (Son of Man) sat on the throne of his glory, and the sum of judgment was given unto the Son of Man, and he caused the sinners to pass away and be destroyed from off the face of the earth ... (while) ... the righteous and elect shall be saved on that day ... and the Lord of spirits will abide over them and with that Son of Man shall they eat and lie down and rise up for ever and ever ... All the righteous shall be angels in heaven.” (Enoch 69:27, 62:13, 51:4)
Meanwhile, God’s avenging angels throw the evil kings into a burning fire in a deep valley. The Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Phanuel do the same to the fallen angels. Sinners who repent of their sins on Judgment Day gain salvation. They are allowed to see the favor which God has bestowed on the righteous and seek a similar situation for themselves. Yet, while the resurrected martyrs are greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, these self-confessed sinners will be least . Like Isaiah chapters 24-27, Enoch predicts that a new heaven and earth will emerge. “I will transform the earth and make it a blessing.” (Enoch 45:4)
While Jeremiah and Ezekiel had written that God will implant his spirit in people’s hearts, writes Schweitzer, “ in Enoch they partake of God’s wisdom, thought of as a heavenly being.” The idea of wisdom personified is a Greek idea. Uniquely, Enoch places the seat of wisdom in heaven but does not activate it until God’s Kingdom comes. “When wisdom came to make her dwelling among the children of men, and found no dwelling-place, she returned to her place and took her seat among the angels.” (Enoch 42: 2)
“Wisdom is poured out like water ... The Elect One stands before the Lord of spirits ... In him dwells the spirit of wisdom ... And he shall judge the secret things, and none shall be able to utter a lying word before him.” (Enoch 49:1-4) Such concepts foreshadow the Christian doctrine of the Logos expressed in the Gospel of John.
The Psalms of Solomon
This work consists of seventeen psalm-like songs that function as an apocalypse. It was written not by King Solomon but by a writer who lived in the period following Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem in 64 B.C. The Pharisees had suffered persecution under Hasmonean kings. Thousands had fled to the desert to escape their persecutors.
The Psalms of Solomon give voice to the agony experienced during that time: “In our tribulation we call upon thee for help. And thou dost not reject our petition, for thou art our God. Cause not thy hand to be heavy upon us, lest through necessity we sin. Even though thou hearkenest to us not, we will not keep away, but will come unto thee. For if I hunger, unto thee will I cry, O God, and thou wilt give to me ... Who is the salvation of the poor and needy, if not thou, O Lord ... Make glad the soul of the poor and open thine hand in mercy.” (Psalms of Solomon 5: 5-12)
The power struggle within the Hasmonean court came to an end when both sides invited the Roman general Pompey to settle their dispute. Pompey decided against Aristobulus II, persecutor of the Pharisees. The Song of Solomon therefore sees Pompey as an instrument of God to punish the Sadducees and Hasmonean rulers. At the same time, in the process of taking control, Pompey’s soldiers besieged and stormed the Temple mount. They penetrated the sanctuary and desecrated the altar of burnt offering by trampling on it. This could not be tolerated. Pompey subsequently lost a battle to Julius Caesar, fled to Egypt, and was murdered. Pompey’s corpse remained unburied for a long time. The Pharisees saw in these events the hand of divine intervention.
“Delay not, O God, to recompense them on their heads, to turn the pride of the dragon into dishonor. And I had not long to wait before God showed me the insolent one slain on the mountains of Egypt, esteemed of less account than the least on land and sea, his body borne hither and thither on the billows with much tossing, and no one buried him because he had given him to dishonor. He reflected not that he was man, and reflected not on the latter end; He said, I will be lord of land and sea, and he recognized not that it is God who is great, mighty in his great strength. He is king in heaven and judges kings and kingdoms.” (Psalms of Solomon 2: 19-30)
The writer of the Psalms of Solomon returns to the conception of a Messiah from David’s lineage found in earlier prophets. “Son of Man” is not mentioned. The writings express joy that the Hasmonean dynasty, though seated upon David’s throne, had ended; for now there would be an everlasting kingdom. One day, God would appoint a Messiah descended from David to rule that kingdom.
“Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, in the time when thou choosest, O God, that he should reign over thy servant Israel. And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers, and that he may purge Jerusalem from the heathen that trample her down to destruction ... Then he will gather together a holy people, whom he shall rule in righteousness, and he shall judge the tribes of the people that has been sanctified by the Lord his God.” (Psalms of Solomon 17: 21, 26)
By the 1st Century B.C., the House of David had been out of power for several centuries. Could its royal line be revived? The Psalms of Solomon assume that the resurrection has taken place by the time that the Kingdom arrives. Human beings who participate in God’s Kingdom must be in supernatural form. “But they that fear the Lord shall rise to life eternal, and their life shall be in the light of the Lord and shall come to an end no more.” (Psalms of Solomon 3: 11)
If the resurrected dead participate in the Kingdom, earlier conceptions of a Davidic Messiah no longer apply. What about those persons still alive when the Kingdom arrives? Are they transformed into a supernatural state to be like the resurrected dead? What about the foreigners who come to Jerusalem to serve God? There are many unanswered questions.
The Psalms of Solomon do not propose a general resurrection of the dead but only of the righteous. The unrighteous dead stay dead. Live sinners “perish for ever.” (Psalms of Solomon 15: 13) Only those whom the Messiah regards as “sons of God” are allowed life in the Kingdom. The scheme here resembles that in Ezekiel where only those with marked foreheads to denote their righteousness are allowed to survive Jerusalem’s destruction. “For the mark of God is upon the righteous that they may be saved. Famine and sword and pestilence ... shall pursue the ungodly ... As by enemies experienced in war shall they be overtaken, for the mark of destruction is upon their forehead.” (Psalms of Solomon 15: 6-9)
The Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra
The purported author of the Apocalypse of Baruch was Jeremiah’s friend, Baruch, to whom the prophecies of Jeremiah were dictated in the 6th century B.C. That of the Apocalypse of Ezra was the priest and scribe who led the caravan of Jews returning from exile a century later. In fact, both writings originated in a time shortly after 70 A.D. when Titus destroyed Jerusalem. They allege to describe the course of historical events from Babylon’s destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C. until the Roman destroyed it again in 70 A.D., and then round off this narrative with a vision of the final days.
In those troubled times, religious Jews had many questions. The Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra consist of a conversation with God about the authors’ moral concerns. Why did God again and again deliver his people into the hands of the Gentiles? Why was God’s Kingdom repeatedly delayed? What about the justice of last-minute repentances which allowed chronic sinners to escape punishment? Would devout Jews ever be spared of such problems?
The answer given by God in these two apocalypses was that much of the misery experienced in this world was a result of “original sin” incurred by Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Those ignorant parents of humanity had no idea how much suffering they would later cause. Why was Jerusalem’ repeatedly destroyed? God explained that this city rebuilt after the Exile belonged to the temporal world whose structures were subject to decay; but the New Jerusalem promised in the future referred to a heavenly city that would never pass away. St. Augustine picked up on that theme four centuries later when the city of Rome was sacked.
To placate his questioners, God kept reassuring them of their glorious future in the coming Kingdom. Ezra could not be lured away from concern for all humanity. He complained of the many righteous ones whose hopes had been repeatedly dashed. God resorted to this reproach: “Thou comest far short of being able to love my creation more than I.” (4 Ezra 8: 47)
Ezra asked for permission to intercede on behalf of others. God sternly rejected this. On the Day of Judgment “none shall pray for another, nor shall anyone accuse another; for then everyone shall bear his own righteousness or unrighteousness.” (4 Ezra 7: 102-105) Although God had allowed intercession in earlier times (as when Moses prayed for the people of Israel), it would not be possible on the Day of Judgment.
The resurrection of the dead posed a problem for believers in a Messianic kingdom ruled by a descendant of David. How could angel-like creatures coexist with human beings? Later prophets had answered this question by replacing the Kingdom of the Davidic Messiah with one ruled by a supernatural “Son of Man”. Survivors of the last generation who were supernaturally transformed would be in the same form as the resurrected dead. However, the prestige of earlier prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah was too strong for the later apocalyptists simply to abandon the idea of a kingdom ruled by David’s descendant.
The apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra therefore proposed that the two types of kingdom appear in succession. First would be the kingdom of the Davidic Messiah, inhabited by human survivors of the last generation. Those persons, remaining in a natural state, would be spiritually transfigured to inhabit the new world. Then would come the general resurrection and the Judgment conducted by God. All who survived this process would enter a purely supernatural Kingdom of God. When this Kingdom arrived, righteous persons in the last generation would assume the same form as those who had risen from the dead.
The solution to the contradiction is the same in both apocalypses: The two kingdoms follow one another in time The Messianic Kingdom lasts for a certain period of time and is then followed by the everlasting Kingdom of God. However, the mechanism of transition between the two kingdoms is different. Baruch does not say how long the Messianic Kingdom will last, only that the Messiah returns to heaven when it comes to an end. In Ezra, on the other hand, the Messianic kingdom lasts for 400 years. Then the Messiah dies, along with all other living persons. The resurrection of the dead takes place seven days later, and God’s eternal reign begins.
Baruch and Ezra write from the perspective of a world that has grown old and may be approaching the final days. According to Ezra, the history of the world is divided into twelve periods of equal length. Nine and half had passed when Ezra, the scribe, lived in the 6th century B.C. Now it was close to the end of human history. The author of Ezra’s apocalypse, who lived after 70 A.D., was able to see that the fourth empire described in Daniel was not the Greek empire founded by Alexander the Great, but Rome. It was an eagle rising from the sea. By the 1st Century A.D., the apocalyptists believed that the underworld had almost reached its full allotment of souls. Nothing could stop the final events from taking place soon.
The final age will be marked by miracles and the occurrence of the pre-Messianic tribulation. “When the time of the world is ripe and the harvest of the evil and the good has come, the Almighty will bring upon the earth and its inhabitants and upon its rulers confusion of spirit and terrifying terror. And they shall hate one another and provoke one another to war ... And every man who is saved from the war shall die through an earthquake, and he who escapes from the earthquake shall be burned in the fire, and all who escape and survive all these perils will be delivered into the hands of my servant, the Messiah. For the whole earth shall devour its inhabitants. But the holy land will have mercy on him who belongs to it (righteous Jews) and will protect its inhabitants in that time.” (Baruch 70: 1-3, 8-71)
This tribulation would end when the Messiah suddenly appeared. He would accuse and destroy the last Roman emperor. Nations that were enemies of Israel would also be destroyed. The earth would bear a great increase in agricultural produce. Manna would again descend from on high. Diseases would be abolished. Wild beasts would come from the forest to “minister to men”. Even the pain of child birth would be felt no more. This would not yet be the kingdom of God. It would be the kingdom of the Messiah, a place transformed but not wholly supernatural. Baruch described it in these terms: “It is the end of that which is corruptible and the beginning of that which is incorruptible.” (Baruch 74:2)
The first of the two kingdoms, the Messianic kingdom, would be inhabited only by those persons who had survived the tribulation. None would yet have risen from the dead. The Messiah who ruled this kingdom would be someone who had descended from heaven because rulers of David’s line had become extinct on earth. This Messiah could not be an earthly ruler upon whom God has bestowed his spirit. Yet, Ezra and Baruch cannot ignore the fact that the prophets of old proclaimed that the Messiah would be descended from David.
There is a contradiction in that, on one hand, the Messiah is David’s earthly descendant while, on the other hand, he is a supernatural being sent from heaven. Albert Schweitzer writes: “The only possible solution of the problem would be to assume that the Messiah is a descendant of David born in the final generation, who begins his reign only after he has become a supernatural being as a result of having risen from the dead. This is the only way in which it would be possible for a Messiah thought of as a supernatural being to be in fact a descendant of David. This is the solution underlying the Messianic self-consciousness of Jesus.”
The souls of the righteous dead from previous generations would not be resurrected until after the Messianic kingdom came to an end and the Messiah returned to heaven. After seven days a second kingdom would begin which God himself rules. “And it shall be, after these (400) years, that my son, the Messiah, shall die, and all in whom there is human breath. Then shall the world be turned into the primeval silence seven days, as at the first beginning; so that no man is left. But after seven days shall the aeon which is still asleep awake and that which is corruptible shall perish. The earth shall restore those that are at rest in her and the dust those that sleep therein ... The most High shall appear upon the throne of judgment.” (4 Ezra 7: 29-33)
No mention is made of “Son of Man” in Ezra or Baruch except for a passage in Ezra which speaks of the Son of Man coming from Mount Zion on the clouds of heaven with the fiery breath of his mouth to destroy a great host. Ezra takes pains, however, to refute the idea expressed in Daniel and in Enoch that God appoints the Messiah to conduct the last judgment and rule his everlasting kingdom. No, that happens only with the first kingdom. The second kingdom is God’s alone.
Such were questions asked about the Kingdom of God in the second half of the 1st century A.D. While the authors of the apocalypses of Ezra and Baruch writing forty years after the Crucifixion made no mention of Jesus, the apostle Paul, a Pharisaic Jew, was aware of the issues involved in their prophetic works. For him it was clear that Jesus was the Messiah and that, with Jesus’ death upon the cross, the Messianic kingdom was about to begin. Like Ezra and Baruch, however, Paul expected two successive Kingdoms: the Messianic, ruled by Jesus, and then the everlasting Kingdom, ruled directly by God.
Prophetic literature becomes a reality in people’s mind
These were prophecies which may have affected Jesus’ thinking. Importantly, they were written prophecies. Written language preserved the message. In this case, more than eight hundred years elapsed between the time of Amos, the first writing prophet, and the authors of the apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra. That is twice the time between the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth rock in 1620 until the present time. It is remarkable that the stream of prophetic writing not only continued during that long period but also increased in intensity and popularity, one prophet building upon the works of his predecessors.
The mode of literature begun by Amos in the 8th century B.C. took history in a new direction. The story began with known circumstances of history and continued into the future as if foretold by divine inspiration. Keep in mind that literacy was still young at this point in time. There were few standards of scholarship. The prophets were pushing the limits of what could be done within this new medium.
Since ordinary men cannot foretell the future, it was necessary to tie the prophecies to persons connected with an omniscient God. If a prophet wrote something and it later came true, that would indicate the writer’s connection to an infallible source of truth. The prophet Isaiah did this when he predicted that Jerusalem would remain in Jewish hands after the Assyrian onslaught. Jeremiah did this when he predicted that this city would fall to the Babylonians. Both writers gained prestige as a result. Prophetic writing in general gained prestige.
The initial prophecies were written in response to historical events. Amos, for instance, was responding to the wickedness of post-Solomonic kings. Second Isaiah wrote in response to Cyrus’ allowing the Jewish exiles to return home. The future Messiah would be a descendant of David. In contrast, the later prophecies were largely divorced from history. Nevertheless, they had a powerful momentum that drove the continuation of the story. As political oppression in Judaea increased under Greek and Roman rule, Jewish people clung more desperately to the prophetic legacy that had been in their culture for so long. Daniel’s vision of the “son of man” largely replaced the Davidic Messiah.
In the later prophesies that lacked historical reference, the writers needed to maintain credibility for their predictions despite their inability to show that a prediction later came true. They did this by the simple technique of writing under the name of a venerated person from antiquity. Daniel, Baruch, Ezra, Solomon, and even Enoch, an antediluvian character, all suited that purpose. Nowadays, with our higher standards of scholarship, that practice would not be allowed; but literature was still young.
The basic structure of prophecy, however, remained the same throughout the period preceding Christ. There were events that were later reported as history and there was prophetic literature purporting to show the future. This body of literature became a factor in human affairs. It was a huge factor in Jewish culture when Jesus stepped upon the historical stage.
Part IV. Jesus and John the Baptist
A new type of literature
Jesus was not a writing prophet nor did he respond directly to the changing circumstances of history. He was more like an actor in a play. His reality was that of the immense body of prophetic literature that had been created in the preceding seven or eight centuries. Jesus’ mission was to fulfill this literature in the role of Messiah. But the story was not altogether predetermined or mechanically fixed, as we shall see.
Jesus’ three-years’ ministry was about fulfilling particular conditions that had to be met before the Kingdom of God arrived. Although God set the timetable for this spectacular event, the revered prophets of old had declared that the Kingdom would arrive when those conditions were met. And Jesus was making it happen. In the process, he himself became the Messiah.
Therefore when we look at the relationship between prophecy and live history, their positions are reversed. Instead of having the events determine the writing, the writing now determined the events. Jesus’ ministry was creating events that conformed to prophetic scriptures. If they had not conformed, the ministry would have been in vain.
Much later, of course, there was another kind of writing exhibited in the Gospels, which were narratives of Jesus’ life. These were personal histories around which a new religious culture emerged. This culture created communities of believers that grew larger and more powerful over the centuries until Christianity became the state religion of Rome. The Christian church and religion have since become an important part of world history, another kind of literature still.
Albert Schweitzer writes: “Christianity is essentially a belief in the coming of the Kingdom of God. It begins with the message preached by John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan, ’Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ It was with the same preaching that Jesus came forward in Galilee after the imprisonment of the Baptist.”
The Gospel of Mark states: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel.’”
So the story of Jesus begins with John the Baptist. The two figures are inseparably linked. Both preach the same message: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” After centuries of expecting God’s kingdom, the glorious moment has arrived. The Kingdom will come soon. Ordinary human history is about to end. A second and related message is: “Repent”. One should prepare to face the Day of Judgment by repenting of sin. One should change one’s sinful attitude and behavior to become fit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
John the Baptist began preaching near the Jordan river around 28 A.D. when Tiberius was emperor in Rome and Herod Antipas ruled Galilee. It was an astonishing moment. After many centuries, new prophet had appeared in Judaea. The Kingdom of God, once a promise from the distant past, had become a contemporary expectation. Furthermore, its arrival was not conditioned upon certain things happening. John was saying simply that the time of its arrival had come.
The time separating John the Baptist and the last canonical prophet, Malachi, was roughly five centuries. And Jewish prophecy was already old in Malachi’s day. For those many centuries religious Jews had been expecting God’s kingdom to arrive but the date had always been postponed. Now there was a strange-looking preacher who was telling people that the Kingdom would arrive soon. How soon was not completely clear; however one was led to believe that one needed to do something now to prepare for the event. One needed to repent before it was too late.
Another new feature of John’s preaching was that he declared one could achieve salvation by the simple act of repenting and submitting to baptism, which was an immersion in water. Baptism made the repentance effective. John declared that he had the authority to forgive sins by this means. He had the authority to confer salvation from sin and death. One became fit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven not by a shift in attitude alone but by virtue of having submitted to John’s baptism in water.
The scriptural basis for this ritual is found in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. Zechariah referred to “a fountain ... opened for the line of David ... to remove all sin and impurity.” (Zechariah 13 1) Ezekiel said: “I will sprinkle clean water over you, and you shall be cleansed from all that defiles you ... I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” (Ezekiel 36: 25-26) Jeremiah said: “O Jerusalem, wash the wrongdoing from your heart and you may yet be saved.” (Jeremiah 4: 14) The fact that John the Baptist is effectively removing sin by this act of drenching the sinner in water means that the last days have arrived.
Jesus let himself be baptized by John the Baptist. One would assume that, in accepting John’s baptism, he was subordinating himself to John in the spiritual hierarchy. The Gospels make it clear that this was not the case. John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees whom he has baptized: “I baptize you with water, for repentance; but the one who comes after me is mightier than I. I am not fit to take off his shoes. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3: 11) Later Jesus comes to the Jordan river to be baptized. “John tried to dissuade him. ‘Do you come to me?’ he said; ‘I need rather to be baptized by you.’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so for the present.’” (Matthew 3: 14-15) John went ahead with his ritual and baptized Jesus.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus received the Spirit after receiving John’s baptism and heard the voice of God saying that he, Jesus, was his beloved son. John was unaware of this role when he baptized Jesus. In Matthew, on the other hand, John is aware of Jesus’ identity from the beginning. In this Gospel, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends and alights upon Jesus like a dove. Afterwards, Jesus goes off by himself into the desert where the devil tempts him. This ordeal lasts for forty days and nights.
The baptism of John confers salvation as an initiation that allows Spirit to be given later by a person who is greater than John. It is necessary to have Spirit to survive the last judgment and be admitted to the Kingdom of God. But John the Baptist cannot confer salvation alone. One needs to possess Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God, not just undergo an initiation. After John, someone else - the one “greater than John” - will come along to confer spirit upon those whom John has baptized. This person would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His shovel is ready in his hand.” (Matthew 3: 11)
Who is the person whom John the Baptist was expecting? Was John thinking of the Messiah if the person he baptized, Jesus, later became the Messiah? No, it was someone else. In late Judaism, people did not expect the Messiah to be a man but a supernatural figure who appeared with the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus was still a man. On the other hand, the prophet Malachi had declared that God would “send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5) Therefore, the one who came after John in order to baptize with spirit was Elijah. The Messiah was not one to baptize but to judge.
John does not think of himself as Elijah, but only a prophet. His role is to preach the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God and prepare men for the coming of Elijah and the outpouring of Spirit. Jesus, too, is not yet the Messiah, who is a supernatural figure arriving with the Kingdom.
John’s role here resembles that of the angel in Ezekiel who marks the foreheads of persons destined for salvation during the Chaldaean destruction of Jerusalem. Most persons whom John marks through immersion in water will later be baptized by Elijah with fire and spirit before they enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is a special case. John’s baptism sets Jesus up for his passion and death upon the cross after which he becomes the Messiah.
In the exchange between Jesus and his disciples James and John, the two disciples ask to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and left hand in the Kingdom. Jesus replies: “You do not understand what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10: 38) When the disciples say they can, Jesus allows them to drink of his cup and be baptized with his baptism while denying them preferred seating in the Kingdom. The baptism to which Jesus refers is the baptism of John which is his passion and death.
A question from John to Jesus
Jesus does not begin preaching until John’s preaching ends when he is imprisoned by Herod Antipas. Jesus attracts a following and performs numerous miracles. His reputation spreads. While in prison, John begins to wonder if the miracles of Jesus mean that the final days have arrived. Through his own disciples he sends a message to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect some other?” (Matthew 11: 2) Was John asking if Jesus was the Messiah? No, it was another person.
John the Baptist knew neither the identify of Jesus nor of himself. That is why he asked Jesus the question. Jesus was aware of himself as the future Messiah but did not want to reveal that fact to John’s disciples. He therefore gave an evasive answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news - and happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling-block.” (Matthew 11: 5-6) He says only that the miracles foretold in prophecy seem to be coming true.
Jesus’ own view is revealed only after John’s disciples have departed. Jesus asks the remaining people about John? Who do they think John was? A man dressed in silks and satins? No. A prophet? “Yes, indeed, and far more than a prophet. He is the man of whom Scripture says, ‘Here is my herald, whom I send on ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.” (Matthew 11: 9-10) Jesus is referring, then, to Elijah who Malachi had prophesied would precede the Messiah in events of the final days. John the Baptist is the returned Elijah. That means that the final days are fast approaching.
The problem is that people do not expect that Elijah will appear as a man. He was taken directly into heaven centuries earlier, and would be expected to return to earth from the same place. Yet, Jesus is telling the crowd that John the Baptist is Elijah. “John is the destined Elijah, if you will but accept it,” he says. (Matthew 11: 15)
Now John’s question to Jesus becomes clear. John was asking Jesus: Are you the promised Elijah? Jesus could not answer “yes” because that response would be untrue. Neither did he then want to give away the secret of his own identity, that he would be revealed as the Messiah at the coming of God’s kingdom. So he gave an evasive answer to John’s disciples. The scriptural significance of John’s identity as Elijah (even if John himself did not realize it) was that one of the main preconditions to the arrival of God’s kingdom had already been fulfilled. The end was near.
Part V Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God
What Jesus wanted his followers to know
Besides proclaiming the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, Jesus is concerned with preparing people to enter it. He is like John the Baptist in that respect. John washed away sins through baptism. Jesus teaches the proper attitudes to have when the present world ends. The fact that the end is near colors all judgment. It were as if someone were told that he had only a week to live: He would adjust his plans accordingly. The imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God is an event of such overriding importance that all other considerations pale in comparison.
Not everyone who lives in the last generation will enter the kingdom of Heaven, however, but only those found pleasing to God. Jesus tries to steer people in that direction. What should they do to prepare themselves for the moment of Judgment? They should cultivate the type of attitude which God finds pleasing. Jesus takes great pains to explain God’s point of view. What people think and do during their lifetimes will determine whether they are admitted to the Kingdom of God. Once the Kingdom comes, it will be too late.
A higher degree of righteousness
Traditionally, religious Jews have thought that God prefers righteous persons. Righteousness means obeying the Law of Moses and rules intended to put life in obedience to the Law. Jesus teaches that this is not enough for salvation. One should obey the spirit of the law as well as its letter. “I tell you,” said Jesus, “unless you show yourselves far better men than the Pharisees and the doctors of the law, you can never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5: 20)
Jesus is more interested in inner thought than external action. The Law is not solely concerned with actions, but also with the thoughts that inspire them. Murder includes the hateful thoughts leading to violence. To commit adultery means also to have lustful feelings toward a woman.
The Beatitudes list attitudes associated with true righteousness:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ...
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.”
(Matthew 5: 4-9)
In this statement, Jesus suggests inward spiritual qualities that indicate membership in God’s kingdom: simplicity of mind, humility, peaceful aspirations, absence of sinful thoughts. Then, in second clause, he suggests that persons with these qualities will participate in the Kingdom of God. The reference to inheriting the earth, for instance, means, just as the Israelites inherited the land of Canaan which God had given their ancestors, so righteous persons will inherit the Kingdom of God. The merciful and poor in spirit, demonstrating simplicity of heart will be among the inheritors.
Jesus himself broke certain laws as a way of teaching the right attitude. When the Pharisees criticized the disciples for picking corn on the Sabbath, Jesus cured the sick on that day. When the disciples did not wash their hands before eating, Jesus pointed out what was important was not what went into the mouth but what came out as directed by the heart. “Wicked thoughts, murder, adultery ... these all proceed from the heart; and these are the things that defile a man; but to eat without first washing his hands, that cannot defile him.” (Matthew 15: 19-20)
Because the Pharisees were concerned with outward behavior and Jesus with inward motivation, Jesus fiercely criticizes members of this sect for posing obstacles to the Kingdom of God. Their insistence upon observing the Law misled people. Jesus launched into a tirade against the Pharisees in Jerusalem:. “Alas for you, lawyers and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like tombs covered with whitewash ... outside you look like honest men, but inside you are brim-full of hypocrisy and crime ... You snakes, you vipers’ brood, how can you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23: 27-33)
Jesus’ preference for inward motivation is illustrated by the story about donations in the Temple. Rich people were donating large sums of money. A poor widow dropped “two tiny coins” into the chest. Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you this ... This poor widow has given more than any of the others; for those others who have given had more than enough, but she, with less than enough, has given all that she had to live on.” (Mark 12: 43-44) Her greater degree of righteousness reflected the donation not in absolute terms but relative to her ability to give. Intention meant more than the amount of money contributed.
According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God required nothing less than observing the highest standard of righteousness. While scripture allowed divorce, Jesus did not allow it except for the wife’s unfaithfulness. While scripture gave the right to demand “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, the higher righteousness required mercy. One should put up with injuries inflicted by another person and not seek retribution: “Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well ... You have learned that they were told, ‘Love your neighbor, hate your enemy.’ But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on good and bad alike.” (Matthew 5: 39-45)
Judging and forgiving others
Jesus advised against judging other people: “Pass no judgment, and you will not be judged. For as you judge others, so you will yourself be judged ... Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? ... You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.” (Matthew 7: 1-5) This statement offers practical advice with respect to entering the Kingdom of God. Those who fear harsh judgment by God need to avoid judging other people harshly: for God will treat them as they have treated others. If one does not judge others harshly, in the same way will one be judged when God’s kingdom arrives.
There is no limit on forgiveness. When Peter asks if it is sufficient to forgive his brother seven times, he receives the reply, ‘Not seven times, but seventy times seven.’” (Matthew 18: 21-22) Jesus urges forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.” (Matthew 6: 12) After saying this prayer, he repeats the point: “For if you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father.” (Matthew 6: 14-15)
The ethic of love
A lawyer asked Jesus the question: Which is the greatest commandment? It was a question often asked in those days. Jesus replied: “This first is ... ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” When the lawyer made statements seeming to agree with that principle, Jesus said to him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12: 28-34)
Jesus stretches love to an unusual degree. He demands not only that one should love one’s neighbor but one’s enemy as well. One should pray for one’s persecutors. It was an idea which had begun to be discussed in Jesus’ time. A more traditional view in Jewish religion was that one should treat the foreigner kindly, remembering how the Jews had been strangers in the land of Egypt. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows that kindness should not be limited to one’s own people. A priest and a Levite passed by an injured man but only the Samaritan, a foreigner, stopped to help. Which of the three was the man’s true “neighbor”? It was the despised Samaritan. “Go and do as he did,” Jesus commands. (Luke 10: 37)
Kindness and love should be present in one’s attitude toward each person one meets. At the coming of the Kingdom, the Son of Man will judge each according to how he has treated the least in society. With some sitting on his right side and others on his left, the Messiah will say to those on the right: “You have my Father’s blessing; come, enter and possess the kingdom ... For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked you clothed me....” The righteous will ask when they did any of those things. “And the king will answer, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.” As for the unrighteous, they neglected to help the Messiah when they slighted these humble ones. “And they (the unrighteous) will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous will enter eternal life.” (Matthew 25: 31-46)
Doing the will of God
Whoever wishes to enter the Kingdom of Heaven must be focused on doing God’s will. Nothing else matters. Jesus said to his followers: “Not every one who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly Father.” (Matthew 7: 21) It does not matter how close one is to Jesus personally. Members of Jesus’ birth family have little advantage. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?, “ Jesus asked. “And looking round at those who were sitting in the circle about him he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother.’” (Mark 3: 33-35)
Jesus does not believe in Original Sin. All men are capable of doing good when they are in earnest about it. “You are light for all the world ... When a lamp is lit, it is not put under the meal-tub, but on the lamp-stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. And you, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16) “Is there a man among you who will offer his son a stone when he asks for bread, or a snake when he asks for fish? If you, then, bad as you are, know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7: 9-11)
Even so, entrance to Heaven is denied all but those who show an extraordinary goodness. God’s standards far exceed those of man. When a stranger asks Jesus, “Good Master, what must I do to win eternal life?”, Jesus recites several of God’s commandments which had to be kept. “But, Master,” says the stranger, “I have kept all these since I was a boy.” Jesus looks at him and says: “One thing you lack: go, sell everything you have, and give to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; and come, follow me.” At this instruction, the man’s heart fell, “for he was a man of great wealth.” (Mark 10: 17-22)
Attachment to wealth is a stumbling-block for those wishing to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus says: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10: 25) Jesus is not against wealth per se, but against its ability to control mens’ hearts. “No servant can be the slave of two masters,” Jesus declares, “for either he will hate the first and love the second, or he will be devoted to the first and think nothing of the second. You cannot serve God and Money.” (Matthew 6: 24)
Again, all must be focused on doing God’s will to gain entrance to Heaven. That is a hard task for persons living in this world, but not an impossible one. The disciples despair of salvation after Jesus compares the rich man to a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Jesus comforts them saying: “For men it (salvation) is impossible, but not for God; everything is possible for God.” (Mark 10: 27)
Is Jesus’ view of the Kingdom spiritual?
It is customary to interpret Jesus’ views and purposes in terms of our own. In Jesus’ time, Greek thought had much influence. Plato believed that ideas were superior to the physical world. It is assumed that Jesus had similar views. When he said, for instance, that his kingdom was “not of this world”, he might have been talking about a spiritualized kingdom. Perhaps this kingdom was “within us” as we immerse ourselves in spirituality. Schweitzer argues against this point of view. Jesus was adhering to views of the Kingdom found in the prophets of late Judaism. That kingdom was neither spiritual nor ethical but supernatural.
Jesus may have had a spiritualized ethics, but his view of the Kingdom was not spiritual. The Messiah was not a man with great spiritual powers but a supernatural being. He did not summon men to found an ethical kingdom but to do God’s will. God would provide the Kingdom, not spiritually developed men.
True, the Gospel of John has Jesus preaching a doctrine of greater spirituality than most Jewish doctrines at the time. However, this teaching is more closely related to the Greek idea of the Logos than to Jesus’ own view. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark, being earlier, are a more reliable source of information than John in presenting Jesus’ own views.
If Jesus had wished to promote a new and more spiritual view of the Kingdom, he might have rebuked his disciples for their materialistic values when they argued among themselves about which of them would be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus merely instructs them on qualifications for entering the Kingdom: they must be humble as a child. (Matthew 18: 1-4) Again, when Peter asks what will be his reward for following Jesus, Jesus does not criticize the selfishness implicit in this question. Instead, he informs Peter that each of the twelve disciples will have his own throne in Heaven where he will sit to judge one of the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19: 27-29)
James and John want a preferred place in the Kingdom. Jesus is not offended by their request but points out that, among his followers, those who are greatest do not lord it over the others but, instead, are their servant. This principle applies even to himself. (Mark 10: 42-45)
What is Jesus’ own view of the Kingdom?
The Son of Man is a supernatural being who appears on the clouds of heaven, surrounded by his angels, when the time for the Kingdom has come. When the High Priest asks Jesus whether he is the Messiah, the Son of God, he replies, ‘Henceforth ye shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ (Matthew 26:64) The High Priest takes this statement as evidence that Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah. It also indicates Jesus’ conception of the Messiah - as “Son of Man” sitting on God’s right hand who comes “on the clouds of heaven” when the Kingdom of God arrives. This Messiah comes in a supernatural way.
Jesus sheds light on the Kingdom in the parable of the darnel in the field. He says: “The sower of the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world; the good seed stands for the children of the Kingdom, the darnel for the children of the evil one. The enemy who sowed the darnel is the devil. The harvest is the end of time. The reapers are the angels. As the darnel, then, is gathered up and burnt, so at the end of time the Son of Man will send out his angels, who will gather out of his kingdom whatever makes men stumble, and all whose deeds are evil, and these will be thrown into the blazing furnace, the place of wailing and grinding of teeth. And then the righteous will shine as brightly as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13: 37-43)
The parable of the fish teaches a similar lesson. “Then the men sat down and collected the good fish into pails and threw the worthless away. That is how it will be at the end of time. The angels will go forth, and they will separate the wicked from the good, and throw them into the blazing furnace, the place of wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Matthew 13: 48-50)
What we see is a picture of destruction which, as in the prophecies of Amos and Malachi, involves a fire-like process to determine who will perish and who will be saved. The devil has created wickedness in the world. Angels of God pick the good apart from the bad and destroy the latter. Elsewhere, it is the Son of Man, accompanied by angels, who separates the two groups. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit in state on his throne, with all the nations gathered before him. He will separate men into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25: 31-33)
Jesus is describing here a purely supernatural kingdom. The inhabitants of this Kingdom, like the resurrected dead, exist supernaturally. When the Sadducees ask Jesus the question about resurrected peoples’ marriages, Jesus replies: “You are mistaken ... When they (human beings) rise from the dead, men and women do not marry; they are like angels in heaven.” (Mark 12: 24-25)
Jesus also says: “Many, I tell you, will come from east and west to feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 8: 11) In other words, the patriarchs of ancient Israel will also be resurrected from the dead in the final days; it will be possible then for some from the last generation to share a meal with them. Jesus promises his disciples at the Last Supper that he, too, will eat and drink with them after the resurrection. He says: “ I tell you, never again shall I drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father.” (Matthew 26: 29)
Schweitzer observes: “There is no escaping the conclusion from these passages that Jesus was expecting a completely supernatural Kingdom of God of the kind described in the prophetic writings of the late post-Exilic period ... It is clear from the fact that as a rule he speaks of the Son of Man rather than of the Messiah that his outlook has its closest affinity with the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch. It is closest to that of Enoch. Jesus shares with Enoch the peculiar views that it is not God, as in the later post-Exilic prophets and in Daniel, but the Son of Man, assisted by his angels, who holds the Judgment, that the Judgment extends over the fallen angels as well, that there are great and little in the Kingdom of heaven, and that the rich must be regarded as lost from the very beginning.”
Why did Jesus adopt this view?
A reason why Jesus adopted the late Jewish view of the Kingdom is that he accepted the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. That doctrine was needed to do justice to the righteous persons of past generations who had died before the Kingdom of God arrived. They had believed in the promise of the Kingdom and had lived their lives in righteousness but had not enjoyed a reward for that effort. It would seem that their efforts had been in vain. That situation was morally intolerable.
However, to include those righteous persons in the promise of the Kingdom, it was necessary to suppose that the dead of past generations would be resurrected when the Kingdom came. The righteous of the last generation would also inhabit the Kingdom. One group would have been resurrected from the dead and the other miraculously transformed when the Kingdom arrived. Both would be in a supernatural state.
Another reason that the view of the Kingdom had to change was that later prophets spoke of a universal God, the God of all nations and not just Israel. The Day of Yahweh, as conceived by Amos, was a day leading to the victory of the Jewish nation over its enemies. That would be a purely historical event. Later prophets, however, foresaw that God would triumph over the forces of evil and death in the world. Such forces could not be conquered in the course of ordinary history but only in a supernatural order that followed historical times. The conception of the kingdom had to be “higher” than before.
What impact did a supernatural Kingdom have on the ethics of Jesus?
Because the supernatural kingdom of God was expected to arrive soon, people’s present worldly concerns did not matter so much. The problems would be short-lived. If the natural world will end tomorrow, one cares little about making improvements in that world. It would be well to become detached from such things.
That is a reason why Jesus valued children. They would enter the Kingdom of God in their present state of innocence, never having developed worldly concerns. The natural attitude of children was also the attitude needed to enter the Kingdom of God. “I tell you,” said Jesus, “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 15)
One prepared for the approaching Kingdom of God by avoiding worldly attachments. One such attachment is a desire for rank and position. Jesus addressed this issue by proposing an ethic that reverses the positions of the great and small, powerful and the weak. “Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus said. (Matthew 18: 4) Again, he remarked: “The greatest among you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23: 12)
Another attachment is to wealth. One is reminded of Jesus’ conversation with the young rich man who was asked to give up all his wealth. He could not do it even to gain entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven, so strong was his attachment to wealth. Jesus urges an attitude toward earthly possessions verging upon the carefree: “I bid you put away anxious thoughts about food and drink to keep you alive, and clothes to cover your body ... Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow and reap and store in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6: 25-26) “Do not store up for yourself treasure on earth, where it grows rusty and moth-eaten, and thieves break in to steal it. Store up treasure in heaven, where there is no moth and no rust to spoil it ... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6: 19-20)
Renouncing moral works, Jesus is concerned only with achieving inner perfection. The justification for this ethics is the idea that the Kingdom of God will come soon. It is not worth concerning oneself with things that are important in the interim period since that situation will soon be gone. Therefore, Jesus does not urge moral improvement or betterment of society; there just isn’t time for that.
Even so, Jesus does not advise total renunciation of the world as ascetic philosophers have done. Such renunciation precludes an ethical system. It is hard to find a place in this scheme for love. Unlike Buddha, Jesus accepts the need to live in this world before the Kingdom of God comes. To a certain extent, he inherits the ethical view of earlier prophets who believed that the Kingdom might come in the distant future. To believe that the Kingdom will come soon creates an attitude of detachment but it does not cause one to neglect present needs.
There is another reason why Jesus rejects asceticism. There is no time for the personal cultivation that it requires. Only the approaching Kingdom matters. This is a time for rejoicing, not self-mortification, because the Kingdom is near. Therefore, those persons who belong to the present generation enjoy a great privilege. They should be happy about living at this time. Their daily lives should be filled with joy.
Jesus often expresses joy. For instance, after preaching the parable of the sower, he says to the disciples: “Happy are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear! Many prophets and saints, I tell you, desired to see what you now see, yet never saw it; to hear what you hear, yet never heard it.” (Matthew 13: 16-17) When John’s disciples come to Jesus asking why he did not make his own disciples fast, Jesus replies: “Can you expect the bridegroom’s friends to go mourning while the bridegroom is with them?” (Matthew 9: 15) The time for fasting will come when the bridegroom is taken away.
So Jesus is relatively relaxed about moral discipline. He lets his disciples eat and drink freely. He associates with sinners. His critics say of him: “Look at him! a glutton and a drinker, a friends of tax-gatherers and sinners!” (Matthew 11:19) Jesus points out that the same types of critics accused John and his disciples of being “possessed” because they embraced an austere mode of living. He dismisses such criticism, saying “God’s wisdom is proved right by its results.” (Matthew 11: 19)
Part VI Jesus’ Messianic secret
Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah?
Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? Not at all. The purpose of his ministry was not to drum up support for some Messianic agenda. Jesus never told people in his audiences that he was the Messiah, and his disciples did not know it either.
What was Jesus doing in his earthly ministry if not being the Messiah? He was announcing the future Kingdom of God and preparing listeners to be admitted to this realm. He was not trying to convince people of his Messianic credentials. God alone would do that. In fact, Jesus while living on earth was not the Messiah. He was only the future Messiah; he was one who would be supernaturally transformed when God’s kingdom arrived.
Two later Gospels, Luke and John, do contain passages suggesting that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. The two earlier Gospels are more reliable. Two incidents mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew are revealing. In the first, Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem. People ask Jesus’ Galilean followers who he is. They reply: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21: 11) If the point of Jesus’ ministry had been to announce himself as the Messiah, his followers would have known this and told the people in Jerusalem. However, despite cries from the crowd hailing Jesus as “the Son of David”, they identify Jesus only as a prophet.
The second incident, even more significant, was Jesus’ arraignment before the High Priest on the grounds that he claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus could be executed for blasphemy if convicted of that offense. The arraignment is telling. The High Priest managed to find two witnesses who said he had disparaged the Temple. Why would the priest have relied on such weak evidence if he could find witnesses that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah? It is because those witnesses did not exist. Jesus did not tell people he was the Messiah or, at least, not enough of them to furnish the required witnesses.
In fact, Jesus’ contemporaries did not suppose that he might be the Messiah because, in late Judaic prophesy, the Messiah was a supernatural being. Until resurrected, Jesus was a man. He was not in a proper form to enter or inhabit the Kingdom of God. Therefore, Jesus could not be legitimately convicted of blasphemy because he had not claimed to be the Messiah.
Was Jesus son of David?
Jesus could not have thought of himself as the Messiah while he still lived but only as someone who would later become the Messiah when the Kingdom came and he was transformed into a supernatural being. How, then, could he be both that kind of Messiah and an earthly descendant of David? Schweitzer believes he has the answer. He writes: “Jesus has solved (this problem) in the only way possible. He assumes that a man born as a descendant of David in the last generation of mankind will be revealed as the Messiah in his supernatural existence at the coming of the Kingdom. He is convinced that he is this descendant of David.”
In the meanwhile, the knowledge which Jesus has of himself as the future Messiah must remain a secret. He keeps this secret to himself. Not even the disciples know it. There is, however, an awareness that Jesus is descended from David. A Canaanite woman addresses him: “Sir! have pity on me, Son of David.” (Matthew 15: 22) A blind beggar at Jericho shouts: “Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me!” (Mark 10:47) Boys in the Temple shout “Hosanna to the Son of David” after Jesus heals blind men and cripples. (Matthew 21: 15) Crowds of onlookers also shout that phrase when Jesus and his followers triumphantly enter Jerusalem. (Matthew 21: 9) While the phrase “Son of David” clearly implies the Messiah, it is not Jesus but others who push that title upon him. Perhaps these people were thinking that Jesus might become the type of earthly Messiah envisioned by the early prophets.
The Gospel of Mark, the oldest Gospel, does not introduce Jesus as David’s descendant. After the miraculous baptism by John, he comes forth only as a preacher and a healer. However, the Gospel of Luke reports that angels heralded the births of both Jesus and John the Baptist in terms relating to the final days. John is promised “the spirit and power of Elijah.” Jesus is promised “the throne of his ancestor David, and he will be king over Israel for ever.” Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, because Joseph, David’s descendant, went to that city to register for the census. The Gospel of Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage from David and from Abraham, naming each person (including Zerubbabel) in the genealogical chain. Yet, according to Matthew, the mother of Jesus, Mary, was only betrothed to Joseph when Jesus was born.
So we can see that Jesus’ claim to the Messiahship through David is rather tenuous. Jesus himself raises questions about the nature of the Messiah in a conversation with the Pharisees in the temple: “Jesus went on to say, as he taught in the temple, ‘How can the teachers of the law maintain that the Messiah is “Son of David’? David himself said, when inspired by the Holy Spirit, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ “ David himself calls him “Lord”; he can he also be David’s son?’” (Mark 12: 35-37) Jesus is quoting here from Psalm 110. Schweitzer explains that “the solution to the riddle is that the Messiah in his earthly existence is subordinate to David as his successor, but in the coming Kingdom, as the Messiah, he is above him.
In what sense was Jesus “Son of Man”?
Late Jewish prophecy had identified the Messiah with a figure known as “Son of Man”. It is a term first used in the Book of Daniel. The Apocalypse of Enoch also associates the Messiah with Son of Man. In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, “Son of Man” means simply a man. However, it carries Messianic connotations because of Daniel and Enoch. Jesus used the word in both senses of meaning. Remarkably, Jesus also used the term, “son of man” when referring to himself as a live human being before the crucifixion.
The phrase “son of man”, in its double meaning, might have suggested to Jesus that he had to be an earthly son of man before he became the Messiah. In other words, the supernatural Messiah would not be a preexistent being sent from heaven. He would instead be a man descended from David who would become the Messianic son of man associated with the Kingdom of God when that Kingdom arrived.
The human and heavenly preexistent incarnations of “Son of Man” are a problem only to those who hold that Jesus was Messiah in his earthly existence. For Jesus himself, it was not a problem. Jesus understood that the two types of existence would come in succession. First he would be a human son of man and then, when the Kingdom came, a supernatural one. This supernatural Son of Man, the Messiah, still belonged to the future. That was Jesus’ Messianic secret. He need not have feared that others would know it. The idea that the Messianic Son of Man would previously have a human existence never occurs to his hearers.
An ill-kept secret
Although Jesus does not identify himself as future Messiah, his actions and words are continually suggesting it. For instance, he claims the authority to forgive sins. Some lawyers mutter: “This is blasphemy! Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus taunts them: “Is it easier to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up, take your bed, and walk?’ But to convince you that the Son of Man has the right on earth to forgive sins” - he turns to the paralyzed man - “ I say to you, stand up, take your bed and go home.’’ The sick man arose. (Mark 2: 7-11)
Jesus elsewhere claims to be Lord of the Sabbath. He says to his critics among the Pharisees: “The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath: therefore the Son of Man is sovereign even over the Sabbath.” (Mark 2: 28) He tells his disciples that, if the people of any town refuse to help them on their journey, “it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Matthew 10: 15)
Jesus begins to attract attention from the authority he claims. No man can legitimately claim he is God. But Jesus is telling audiences that their reward in the Kingdom of God depends on how they treat him and the disciples. “To receive you is to receive me, and to receive me is to receive the One who sent me ... if anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because he is a disciple of mine, I tell you this: that man will assuredly not go unrewarded,” Jesus says. (Matthew 10: 40-42) The Son of Man, as Messiah, will remember on Judgment Day how people treated him on earth - whether they gave him food and drink, treated illness, or clothed nakedness - and treatment of “one of my brothers here, however humble” is the same as treatment of him. (Matthew 25: 40-46)
The day of the Kingdom draws near once John the Baptist is beheaded. Although people including John himself do not realize the significance of John’s ministry, Jesus does. He tells a crowd of listeners: “For all the prophets and the Law foretold things to come until John appeared, and John is the destined Elijah, if you will but accept it.” (Matthew 11:14-15) The significance of this disclosure is that one of the last barriers to the Kingdom of Heaven has now been removed. Scripture foretold that the prophet Elijah would come before “the great and terrible day of the Lord” when God’s Kingdom arrived. (Malachi 4:5) Now Elijah has come and gone. The way is clear for the Kingdom itself to arrive.
So Jesus and his followers travel from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus rides into the city on the back of a donkey fulfilling the Messianic prediction: “Rejoice, rejoice, daughter of Zion ... for see, your king is coming to you ... mounted on an ass.” (Zechariah 9: 9) Once in Jerusalem, Jesus heads straight to the Temple and takes charge. Jesus “went into the temple and began driving out those who bought and sold in the temple. He upset the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to use the temple court as a thoroughfare for carrying goods.” (Mark 11: 15-16) With reference to the Messiah, it is written in Zechariah: “On that day ... every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the Lord ... So when that time comes, no trader shall again be seen in the house of the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 14: 20-21)
Previously Jesus made an effort to keep his Messianic identity a secret. On the whole, he is successful although demons try to betray the secret. In the synagogue at Capernaum, a man with an “unclean spirit” shrieks at Jesus: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? ... I know who you are - the Holy One of God.” Jesus says to the man, “Be silent”; and, to the evil spirit, “come out of him.” The man goes into a convulsion and the spirit leaves his body. (Mark 1: 24-27) There is a similar experience on the shores of Lake Galilee. “For he cured so many that sick people of all kinds came crowding in upon him to touch him. The unclean spirits too, when they saw him would fall at his feet and cry aloud, ‘You are the Son of God’; but he insisted that they should not make him known.” (Mark 3: 10-12)
The secret is betrayed
An important part of the Gospels is the story of how the secret of Jesus’ Messianic identity escapes to a place where it can do harm. The secret escapes by way of the disciples. The process began as Jesus and the disciples were departing for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. “On the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say I am?’ They answered, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others one of the prophets.’ ‘And you,’ he asked, ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter replied: ‘You are the Messiah.’ Then he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him.” (Mark 8: 28-30)
How did Peter know that Jesus was the Messiah? In the Gospel of Matthew, it is reported that Jesus thinks God told Peter. Jesus says: “Simon son of Jonah, you are favored indeed! You did not learn that from mortal man; it was revealed to you by my heavenly Father.” (Matthew 16: 17-18) Jesus goes on to call Peter, “the Rock”, and say he will build his church upon this rock, and give Peter the keys to the kingdom of Heaven.
There is another view: that Peter learned Jesus was Messiah at an event called the Transfiguration. This event occurred six days after Jesus’ conversation with the disciples. Jesus took three of the disciples - Peter, James, and John - with him as he ascended a high mountain. He was alone with these disciples and then “in their presence he was transfigured; his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as snow. And they saw Moses and Elijah appear, conversing with him. Then Peter spoke: ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘how good it is that we are here! If you wish it, I will make three shelters here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, a bright cloud suddenly overshadowed them, and a voice called from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests; listen to him.’ At the sound of the voice the disciples fell on their faces in terror. Jesus then came up to them, touched them, and said, ‘Stand up; do not be afraid.’ And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one, but only Jesus.” (Matthew 17: 2-8)
Peter, James, and John learned from this event that Jesus was the Messiah, the beloved Son of God. Jesus instructed the three disciples not to tell anyone of this experience “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The subject of Elijah came up. The disciples were puzzled why Jesus should speak of the Kingdom’s imminent arrival when the scriptures clearly said that Elijah must come before that could happen. Jesus tells them that Elijah has already come; he has come in the person of John the Baptist. So the way is now clear for the Messiah to come.
Why did Peter and the other two disciples not know that John the Baptist was Elijah when Jesus had previously told this to a crowd of people. The reason is that the disciples did not hear that conversation; they were away on a trip to the towns of Israel commissioned by Jesus. (Matthew 11:1) The prophecy that Elijah must first appear before the Messiah would come was so ingrained in late Jewish thinking that one cannot believe Peter would not have asked about Elijah in the earlier conversation with Jesus if he had thought that Jesus might be the Messiah. This subject only came up six days later when Jesus and the three disciples were descending the mountain after the Transfiguration. That is further evidence that Peter first learned of Jesus’ Messianic secret at the Transfiguration.
In any event, Peter now knows Jesus’ secret. Peter tells the secret to other disciples in a conversation at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks the disciples not to reveal it to anyone else. So, how does the High Priest learn the secret? Judas betrays it, being part of Jesus’ inner circle.
There is a misunderstanding about how Judas betrayed Jesus. It is commonly supposed that he gave away Jesus’ location so that the authorities could arrest him. However, Jesus by then was a public figure. His evening location at Bethany could easily have been learned. No, Judas betrayed Jesus in telling the authorities that Jesus thought of himself as the coming Messiah and had therefore committed the crime of blasphemy. Later Jesus himself admitted this when questioned by the High Priest. He could then be sentenced to death without the required three witnesses. Jesus’ disciple, Judas Iscariot, had supplied the key evidence to justify arresting Jesus and bringing him to trial.
Part VII Short cut to the Kingdom
Was Jesus facing increased opposition to his ministry?
After the disciples learned at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus began speaking openly that he would have to go to Jerusalem, be crucified, and then die and rise again. He would die as a sacrifice for many. Why did Jesus come to that conclusion? Was his ministry in trouble? No.
Many have believed that Jesus went to the Cross because his activities in Jerusalem had stirred increased opposition culminating in his arraignment before the High Priest. The evidence does not support this theory. Jesus was not a reviled and beaten man during his time in Jerusalem but someone who had entered the city with cries of Hosanna. He continued to enjoy much popular support until the end.
The High Priest and elders could have had Jesus stoned in public. They had every right to do it under the Law. Jesus was a self-confessed blasphemer. Why did they not? They had the right to stone Jesus, but not the power, because the masses continued to support him. The authorities therefore had to arrest him at night, condemn him at a night session, bring him before Pilate and have the death sentence confirmed and immediately carried out. Those who shouted “Crucify, crucify” were a specially gathered group collected at dawn by his accusers. The crucifixion took place before Jesus’ many supporters learned what had happened.
Some believe that Jesus traveled in Galilee and surrounding territories to escape growing opposition to his ministry. Jesus fled the crowds for another reason. When he left Galilee for a time, it was not to escape the authorities or hostile critics. Jesus wanted time to be alone with his disciples. His preaching near the shores of Lake Galilee had attracted a multitude of listeners. He now had something else on his mind. It was this:
Jesus had sent the disciples out, in pairs, on a mission to announce the coming of the Kingdom, heal the sick, and perform miracles. When the disciples returned to Jesus, he said to them: “Come with me, by yourselves, to some lonely place where you can rest quietly.” (Mark 6: 30) Jesus and the disciples then left the area by boat but the crowds followed them. Many were gathered at the landing place. To make the crowds go away, the disciples proposed sending people off to the farms to gather food. Jesus had another idea. Gathering fish and bread, he caused this food supply to multiply miraculously. Then Jesus and the disciples crossed Lake Galilee in a boat. On the other side of the lake, another crowd was gathered. Many requested that Jesus heal the sick. He was busy much of the time. (See Mark 6: 36-56.)
A change in plans
What had happened was that the disciples, when they returned to Jesus from the journey, had not fully carried out the commission they received from him. He had sent them to the lost sheep of the house of Israel to visit the cities of Israel. They were to visit all parts of Judaea, including Jerusalem, though not Samaria. They did not. That sparked a change in plans.
The reason that Jesus discontinued his preaching after the disciples returned was that the promise he made to the disciples as he sent them out on their mission had not been fulfilled. He told the disciples to proclaim that the Kingdom would arrive soon. He had, in fact, promised them that the Son of Man would come before they had finished with the cities of Israel. (Matthew 10: 7, 23) ... What Jesus had expected did not occur. In the speech delivered as he sent them out on the journey he also held out the prospect of grave persecutions which they would have to endure. The disciples, however, returned having experienced none of those things. (Matthew 10: 16-18)
With respect to persecution, Jesus had warned the disciples that during their journeys around Israel, “men will hand you over to their courts, they will flog you in synagogues, and you will be brought before governors and kings, for my sake ... Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will turn against their parents and send them to their death. All will hate you for your allegiance to me.” (Matthew 10: 17-22). But, said Jesus, “the man who holds out to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one town, take refuge in another; I tell you this: before you have gone through all the towns of Israel the Son of Man will have come.” (Matthew 10: 22-23)
This is understood in eschatological terms. Jesus is here warning the disciples about the pre-Messianic tribulation. The scenario of events in the final days had always included a period of intense suffering. Jesus supposed that this period of tribulation would take place when the disciples were on the road preaching to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That was the remaining obstacle to the Kingdom’s arrival. By this time, the prophet Elijah - John the Baptist - had already appeared. Once the tribulation was also behind them, it would be time for the Kingdom of God to come. That is what Jesus expected. He said, “Before you have gone through all the towns of Israel the Son of Man will have come.” Simultaneously with the Messiah’s arrival would come the Kingdom of God.
But now Jesus had to confront the fact that what he promised the disciples did not come to pass. He had to reflect upon the unexpected turn of events. From the beginning, Jesus had preached about the tribulation. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, he had mentioned this event. Anyone expecting the Kingdom to come in accordance with scripture would have done the same. An unresolved question, however, was what would happen to Jesus and the disciples during this time. Would they, too, have to experience the tribulation? If so, what would be their fate?
Jesus, the future Messiah, would certainly be in the midst of the tribulation. He would will have to live through this difficult period along with the faithful. The persecution would rage about him as the future Messiah. The disciples would also be afflicted by it. The evil forces would be taking advantage of their last opportunity to vent their fury for the last time in the pre-Messianic tribulation against those who had sided with God.
Jesus expected that he would be humiliated. He expected his disciples to share much the same experience. They, too, would be subject to extreme “testing”. Possibly, some of them would die. They who died faithful to him would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. They who abandoned him under pressure would fail to enter the Kingdom. It was therefore critical that Jesus’ followers remain steadfast in their faith during the difficult time.
The idea of testing is, of course, found in the prophets, especially Ezekiel. While Jesus did not cover all the miraculous events foretold in the tribulation, he did mention one feature included in the Apocalypse of Enoch. That was the idea that brother would turn against brother, father against child, children against parents, and deliver each other to death. (Enoch 100:1)
This expectation of a severe challenge during this time accounts for some of Jesus’ more gruesome teachings. Sending the disciples out on their mission, Jesus said: “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother ... and a man will find enemies under his own roof. No man is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me; no man is worthy of me who cares more for son or daughter; no man is worthy of me who does not take up his cross and walk in my footsteps. By gaining his life a man will lose it; by losing his life for my sake, he will gain it.” (Matthew 10: 34-39)
Jesus is not thinking of earthly relationships but of the pre-Messianic tribulation. It would be, unfortunately, a time of such extreme testing that only those who gave up all worldly attachments, including loyalty to family members, would be able to hold fast to him and survive.
The Lord’s Prayer
The fact that Jesus had sent the disciples out on a mission with a promise that had not been fulfilled caused Jesus to rethink the situation. Jesus now thought God might be willing to allow his followers to skip the requirement that they prove themselves during the period of tribulation, some of whom might fail to pass the test. He teaches them to petition God for that favor. Where? In the Lord’s Prayer.
This prayer, as often recited, includes the phrase: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Would God really “tempt” humanity? No, God does not want to try to make men do evil. The “temptation” is not an invitation to commit evil acts but a testing period when the evil forces of this world put pressure on people. It is, in fact, the pre-Messianic tribulation.
In another translation, closer to the original meaning, the two petitions are stated: “And do not bring us to the test, but save us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6: 13) The forces of evil, led by the devil, are raging in the world. Some succumb to those forces while others survive. “Deliver us from evil” means, then, deliver us from the devil, who is the evil one. This prayer asks God to help us resist pressures from the devil who controls the world during that difficult time.
This prayer also asks God to spare us of the tribulation itself. “Lead us not into temptation” - alternatively worded, “do not bring us to the test” - means that we ask God to allow us to bypass that difficult experience. We want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without having to pass the test posed by the tribulation. We want God to rescue us from the evil powers which would have us under their control during the tribulation. We want the Kingdom to appear without a prior occurrence of the pre-Messianic tribulation, but instead have that experience omitted.
How the pre-Messianic tribulation might be canceled
Albert Schweitzer writes: “Because of the delay in the tribulation the prospect of which he had held out to the disciples when he sent them out on their mission, Jesus came to the conclusion that God was willing to spare believers from it if he fulfilled it in his own person. This he would accomplish by voluntarily undergoing death and so bringing about that end of the domination of evil which was to mark the conclusion of the tribulation.”
There was, in other words, a change in plans. God would not make the disciples endure the tribulation that was expected when they went out to preach in the cities of Israel. But scripture still had to be fulfilled. Jesus now believed that his own self-sacrifice would satisfy the requirement of the tribulation which was to happen before God’s Kingdom arrived.
The self-sacrifice of Jesus helped only those who belonged to the last generation, however. They were the ones who would have had to experience the tribulation. The righteous ones of previous generations, who had died, would enter the Kingdom through the resurrection of the dead. Their struggles were over. Those in future generations did not come to mind since Jesus believed that time itself had come to an end.
What led Jesus to this idea?
The first event to have inspired Jesus’ new thinking may have been the death of John the Baptist. Jesus believed that John was the destined Elijah. Scripture had said that Elijah would return to earth but it did not say that he would die. The original prophet Elijah had been taken straight to heaven. It might have been assumed that Elijah in returning to earth would do the same. Nowhere was it written that Elijah would have to die. Yet, the returned Elijah - John the Baptist - did die. He was beheaded by Herod Antipas. This happened before the period of tribulation.
John died in a manner not foretold by scripture. Jesus imagined that he, as Messiah, might have a similar fate. So, at the Transfiguration Jesus answered the disciples’ question about Elijah: “Yes, Elijah will come and set everything right. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they failed to recognize him, and worked their will upon him; and in the same way the Son of Man is to suffer at their hands.” (Matthew 17: 11-13)
The prophecies of Zechariah contain references to events in Jesus’ latter days. The inhabitants of Jerusalem “shall look upon me (the Messiah), on him whom they have pierced.” The Messianic king shall enter Jerusalem “mounted on an ass.” The death of Jesus shows how “I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered abroad.”
When one of Jesus’ companions drew a sword to protect Jesus from arrest, Jesus replied: “Put up your sword ... Do you suppose that I cannot appeal to my Father, who would at once send to my aid more than twelve legions of angels? But how then could the scriptures be fulfilled, which say that this must be?” (Matthew 26: 52-54) Jesus seems to be saying that scripture foretold his arrest by agents of an earthly state. But there was nothing in scripture about the suffering and death of the Messiah.
Even so, Jesus may have found a reference to Messianic suffering in the passages of Second Isaiah which deal with the Servant of the Lord, whose suffering is to benefit others. In the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, it is written: “He was despised ... tormented and humbled by suffering ... on himself he bore our sufferings, our torments he endured, while we counted him smitten by God ... but he was pierced for our transgressions, tortured for our inequities; and the chastisement he bore is health for us and by his scourging we are healed. We had all strayed like sheep, each of us had gone his own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.” (Isaiah 53: 3-6)
When Jesus said that “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 45), he may have had these passages in mind. He may have been thinking of Isaiah’s description of God’s servant when he stood silent before the High Priest as the Council debated charges against him. Isaiah had written: “He was afflicted, he submitted to be struck down and did not open his mouth; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter, like a ewe that is dumb before the shearers.” (Isaiah 53: 7) In like manner, Jesus voluntarily submits to suffering at the hands of the religious and political authorities.
This is the meaning of the crucifixion. Jesus, as future Messiah, has voluntarily taken suffering and death upon himself so that prophecies regarding the tribulation involving others as well will be fulfilled. The prophesied events have now moved to a point beyond the tribulation so that there are no further obstacles to the coming of God’s kingdom. The evil forces have also lost their power. According to scripture, they were destined to rise up against God during the tribulation but that rebellion has also been cancelled.
“The death of Jesus thus brings about the coming of the Kingdom of God, “ wrote Albert Schweitzer. “This is its fundamental meaning. The way in which it benefits believers is that it gives them the possibility of entering the Kingdom. At the same time it also benefits them by sparing them the necessity of having to pass through the tribulation before entering the Kingdom.”
Part VIII The end comes
Pressuring God through prayer
After John the Baptist’s disciples had left, Jesus made this puzzling statement: “Ever since the coming of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are seizing it.” (Matthew 11: 12) What does this mean? One interpretation is that armed men might try to capture the Kingdom. John, or even Jesus, might have been a political revolutionary. No, the “pressure” referred to by Jesus is not of a physical kind. Rather, it is exercised through prayer and agitation. Pious men since John the Baptist have been trying to make the Kingdom come more quickly.
This suggests the idea that mankind can make God’s kingdom a reality through work. Jesus was not like Zoroaster in proposing that mankind is God’s ally in the struggle for the victory of good over evil. Still, there were things that could be done to advance the coming of the Kingdom. Even if God alone decides its timing, men could perhaps exert influence or, in other words, put “pressure” on God to speed things up.
How is this done? Through repentance or change of heart. That is how humanity can prepare for the Kingdom, hoping that it will influence God to let its arrival happen more quickly. The repentance which John requests of those who are baptized is one way that believers might “pressure” God. Jesus suggests another: the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus teaches his followers to pray for the Kingdom to come.
The opening lines of this prayer are: “Our Father in heaven, thy name be hallowed; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 9-10) One is asking God to bring his heavenly Kingdom to earth. The last two verses in the prayer (Matthew 6: 13) - “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” - are, as we have seen, a request for the Kingdom to come without requiring Jesus’ followers to face “the test” - the tribulation. What of the line, “Give us today our daily bread”? Is this, as many suppose, a request for God to give people the food which they will need each day to live? No, it is a request for God to let Jesus’ followers participate in the banquet with the Messiah which will take place when the Kingdom is established. It is a request to let this happen today - soon.
Schweitzer points out that the literal translation of what we recite as ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is “Give us to-day, now, our bread for the future”. The phrase “bread for the future” refers to the situation after God’s Kingdom has come. It refers to the Messianic banquet in Heaven. In this prayer the believers are petitioning God to let the supernatural bread of the Messianic banquet appear immediately, or, in other words, let the Kingdom itself come immediately - “today”.
The Messianic banquet first appears in Jewish prophetic literature in the 25th chapter of Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will prepare a banquet of rich fare for all the peoples, a banquet of wines well matured and richest fare, well-matured wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25: 6)
References to this banquet are scattered throughout the Gospels. Jesus says at Capernaum: “Many, I tell you, will come from the east and west to feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 8: 11) The two fish and five loaves of bread miraculously multiplied into food whose scraps filled “twelve great baskets”, feeding thousands. (Matthew 14: 18-21) The seven loaves of bread and the small fishes expanded into food to feed thousands more also foreshadow the Messianic banquet. (Matthew 15: 36-37) Those who have taken part with Jesus in the Last Supper will also be his table companions at the banquet in Heaven.
At the Last Supper, Jesus refers to the bread which is his body and to the wine which is his blood (Matthew 26: 26-28) in words recalling the words of Isaiah about the “banquet of rich fare” and the “banquet of wines” which God will prepare. If anything still remains unclear, Jesus adds this clarifying statement: “I tell you, never again shall I drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father.” (Matthew 26: 29) Jesus is here promising the disciples that they will be with him in the Kingdom of God, again eating and drinking with him, when he has become the Messiah. He is also saying that he will die before he has an opportunity to eat another meal on earth.
Schweitzer writes: “If Jesus assumed that believers by repentance and entreaty in the Lord’s Prayer for the appearance of the Kingdom of God are actually exercising pressure on its coming, this helps to bring everything into focus. We can now understand his conviction that God had ordained that, as the future Messiah, he could by his voluntary suffering and death bring about the coming of the Kingdom without the prior occurrence of the Messianic tribulation. Through his death the two last petitions of the Lord’s Prayer find fulfillment.”
Does Jesus’ death atone for the sins of others?
Even if Jesus’ death cancels the requirement of the pre-Messianic tribulation, some have argued that this death represents an “atonement, producing a forgiveness of sins.” In dying, Jesus may have effected the same washing away of sin that John the Baptist accomplished through immersion in water. This is an attractive and plausible theory but not necessarily correct in terms of eschatological expectations. Even if the petition for forgiveness (of sins) and that for protection from the pre-Messianic tribulation follow one another in the Lord’s prayer, there is no necessary connection between them. In Schweitzer’s view, Jesus’ death itself brings about cancellation of the pre-Messianic tribulation, and cancellation of the pre-Messianic tribulation brings about the Kingdom of God. Nothing further is required.
If Jesus’ death brings about the coming of the Kingdom, does it also guarantee each person alive a place in the Kingdom? No, it does not. The prophets had long maintained that admission to the Kingdom would involve a moral distinction. Some persons would be saved and others not. What is the criterion which Jesus uses to determine which person will be saved? Is it baptism? Is it belief in him as Messiah? No, there is a simpler criterion, one which also is stated in the Lord’s Prayer. That is the principle of forgiveness. “Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.” (Matthew 6: 12) in other words, God will forgive your sins (and let you enter the Kingdom of Heaven) if you forgive the sins of others. It’s that simple.
The forgiveness of sins promised in the Lord’s Prayer is given by God alone in his mercy. But men, for their part, must actually have forgiven others, not just have a disposition or intention to forgive. The Lord’s prayer is often recited “forgive our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In Matthew, it reads: “as we have forgiven”. (Matthew 6: 12) In other words, God will forgive us as, or to the same degree, that we have forgiven others. It must be a full forgiveness, already complete, if we expect God to forgive us in like manner and let us enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Some of Jesus’ other quotations confirm that interpretation. Right after giving them the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says to the disciples: “For if you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father.” (Matthew 6: 14-15) The principle is clear; it states succinctly Jesus’ idea of what it takes for one’s sins to be forgiven by God so that one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
There is an idea that humanity’s heavy load of sin required a cancellation of that sin before the Kingdom could arrive; and Jesus’ atoning death provided the cancellation. However in the later prophets and the Apocalypses, the pious have to prove themselves worthy of salvation in the tribulation, however sinful they are. There is no indication that humanity’s heavy load of guilt will slow the coming of the Kingdom. The Apocalypse of Ezra states that the coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be delayed by anything, not even by the sins of persons on earth. (4 Ezra 4: 38-42.)
The strongest scriptural evidence in favor of an atoning death would be passages in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah which refer to “being pierced for our transgressions, tortured for our iniquities ... the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.” (Isaiah 53: 5-6) Although Jesus associates the Suffering Servant with himself, he cannot regard his death as an atonement because of the unconditional nature of God’s forgiveness of sin as expressed in the Lord’s Prayer. It is rather an act of service and the payment of a ransom. The real meaning of his death upon the cross is that it cancelled the need for the pre-Messianic tribulation. The Kingdom could now come because this scriptural precondition had been removed.
In the garden of Gethsemane
One detail remained before Jesus could go to his death, cancel the pre-Messianic tribulation, and bring about the Kingdom of God. Although Jesus had resolved to die, three of his disciples - Peter, James, and John - had implicated themselves in this event by promising to share Jesus’ fate. Would they, too, have to die? Jesus also wonders if, in light of God’s mercy in canceling the tribulation, God might be willing to cancel his own suffering, too. In Gethsemane he entreats God three times that this cup (of death) might pass him by. (Matthew 26: 37-44)
Since God is omnipotent and merciful, Jesus has a glimmer of hope that his personal suffering that will cancel the tribulation may also be avoided. As he had asked his followers for protection from the tribulation in the Lord’s Prayer, so he now prays for himself. He takes with him to pray James, John and Peter, leaving the other disciples behind. Why? It is because these three disciples have promised to share with him his fate. Jesus is beseeching God to spare them also the need to die.
The incident mentioned here is James’ and John’s request that Jesus allow them to sit on his right hand and on his left hand in the Kingdom of Heaven: “Jesus said to them, ‘You do not understand what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ ‘We can’, they answered. Jesus said, ‘The cup that I drink you shall drink, and the baptism I am baptized with shall be your baptism; but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.’” (Matthew 10: 38-40)
Jesus has here promised James and John that they would drink from his cup and share his baptism, meaning his experience of death. The same is also true of Peter who said to Jesus at the Mount of Olives: “Even if I must die with you, I will never disown you.” (Matthew 26: 35)
With his own death approaching, Jesus is anxious that the three disciples be released from the promise to share that fate. If God spares him, the others, too, will be safe.
Although Jesus urges the three disciples to remain awake, they lapse into sleep. Jesus warns them: “What! Could none of you stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake, and pray that you may be spared the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26: 41)
The Greek word used here for “test”, Schweitzer notes, is “a form of testing through suffering and the agony of death” which is equivalent to the pre-Messianic tribulation. Nevertheless, the situation is resolved: The three disciples will not have to suffer. Jesus alone goes to his death.
IX. Practices and beliefs after Christ’s resurrection
Historical Background: early Christianity
When Jesus was crucified, all seemed to be lost. This Galilean who had aroused such hope had gone the way of a common criminal. Even his disciples had betrayed him or denied that they knew him. Then, on a morning after the crucifixion, two women both named Mary discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty. They saw an angel wearing a white robe who said that Jesus had risen from the dead. The news electrified his followers; for the fact of resurrection put Jesus in a supernatural state like that of the expected Messiah.
The belief that Jesus was this Messiah caused those who had known him in his earthly career to preach the Gospel of the risen Christ. That activity generated one of the most remarkable movements in the history of the world. The “Kingdom of God” may not have come as expected, but a spiritual kingdom focused on Jesus, the church, did come. It had an extraordinary history.
As the story of Jesus combines elements of political history, prophetic scripture, and personal action, so the history of the church involves some of the same elements. When Christianity began, it had only a small group of Jesus’ followers, memories of his earthly activities and teachings, and belief in his resurrection. His followers now looked forward to Jesus’ return as a Messiah who would arrive on the clouds of heaven. It was this belief which held the group together after Jesus’ death and attracted converts to Christianity as a religion.
The New Testament provides a scriptural record of Christianity in its early days. It combines stories of Jesus and of the early Christian community with the sayings and teachings of Jesus and writings of the Apostles. The most important books of the New Testament would be the four Gospels. Until they were written, knowledge of Jesus’ life was held in the memory of persons who knew him. Stories about him circulated by word of mouth. Matthew and Mark, the two oldest Gospels, were written around 70 A.D. in a period when the Romans were destroying Jerusalem. The Gospel of Luke was written between 70 A.D. and 100 A.D; and the Gospel of John, in the early part of the 2nd century A.D.
The New Testament book titled Acts of the Apostles carries the history of the Christian community from Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances through Paul’s arrival in Rome to plead his case before the emperor. Then comes a section containing the letters of Paul and other apostles to Christians in several cities. Those letters, written around 50 A.D., predate the Gospel narratives. The final book in the New Testament is the Book of Revelation, which is a Christian prophecy written by John of Patmos near the end of the 1st century A.D.
Organizationally, the early church was split between a group that favored continued observance of Jewish laws and a group that wished to be rid of law as the Gospel of Christ was preached to Gentiles. A specific issue was whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to be circumcised. Jewish traditionalists favoring that requirement were associated with the Jerusalem church led by James, brother of Jesus. Another group, which argued that Christ’s resurrection had made the Law obsolete, appealed to a broader audience. The apostle Paul was its champion.
Paul was at odds with the prevailing opinion within the church that Jesus would soon return to earth as the triumphant Messiah. Paul developed a rationale for the fact that this event evidently had not yet taken place. He explained that the death and resurrection of Jesus had itself brought about the Kingdom of God; this was evidenced in the increased spiritualization taking place in the world. Yet, Christians have continued to look for a dramatic event that would launch God’s kingdom. The Book of Revelation created a new scenario of the struggle between good and evil in which steadfast Christians were persecuted by earthly kings led by a character known as the Anti-Christ. Believers in a Second Coming take inspiration from it.
The early Christians preached the Gospel of the risen Christ. It was a message which met stiff resistance from Jewish traditionalists. A young man named Stephen attacked their attitude in a statement before the High Priest: “How stubborn you are, heathen still at heart and deaf to the truth! You always fight against the Holy Spirit. Like fathers, like sons. Was there ever a prophet whom your fathers did not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One; and now you have betrayed him and murdered him.” (Acts 7: 51-52) True to form, some persons from the audience stoned Stephen. He was the first of many Christian martyrs.
One who held the coats of Stephen’s murderers as they attacked him was Saul, soon to be renamed Paul. He was converted to faith in Jesus by a blinding vision on the road to Damascus. Paul was a Jew schooled both in the Pharisaic writings and in Greek philosophy. He put his intellectual talents to good use in interpreting scriptural issues and setting policy for the church. Paul, Barnabas, and others journeyed to places in the east Mediterranean region preaching the Gospel while admonishing and comforting Christian communities. They found Gentiles receptive to the message that Jesus was Messiah.
In this first generation after the crucifixion there were many within the Christian community who had known Jesus personally. They remembered what he had said and done. An important undertaking was to reduce this experience to writing so that future generations would have a picture of Jesus in his earthly career. Biblical scholars differ as to whether Matthew or Mark was written first. But in either case, the four Gospels and other writings were compiled in the New Testament, a second part of the Bible which followed the Jewish sacred scriptures. Possessing its own literature, Christianity now made the crucial transformation from a movement sustained by personal memories to a scripturally based religion.
For much of the 1st century A.D., religious Jews chafed under the yoke of Roman rule. Jesus had set an example of a peaceful Messiah who did not challenge political authority. His sights were set upon a kingdom “not of this world”. During this period, however, there were other Messianic movements and groups such as the Zealots that did take up arms against Rome. This approach resulted in Jerusalem’s total destruction in 70 A.D. Christianity’s peaceful approach was proven to be wise. While Rome persecuted Christians, the fact that they accepted martyrdom instead of challenging Roman authority helped to avert mass bloodshed. The community of believers was saved.
Belief in the Resurrection
Albert Schweitzer asks: “In what does the primitive Christian faith consist? The fundamental element in it is belief in the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God, as it has been preached by John the Baptist and Jesus. To this article of faith, which was already present, now, after his death, another is added: belief in his Messiahship. The believers know through the disciples and from Jesus’ acknowledgment before the High Priest that he regarded himself as the coming Messiah. Because of their belief in his resurrection they are convinced that this is what he is.”
The disciples were energized by Jesus’ resurrection because they now knew that he was the Messiah. Late Jewish prophecy did not conceive that the Messiah was a man. When Jesus was a man, he was not the Messiah. Now that Jesus had died and was resurrected, he was a supernatural being who was in the proper form of the Messiah. Therefore, Christians believed, the prophecy had come true. What Jesus had said about himself as Son of Man had happened. Christianity could rest upon a firm foundation of fact.
Still, belief in the resurrection of Jesus rests upon uncertain facts. Stories of Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances were not told immediately after his death but, instead, date to a later time. The Gospel of John, written almost a century after Jesus’ death, includes the story of Doubting Thomas, who was allowed to put his finger inside Jesus’ wound. How could one not believe in the resurrection after an experience like that? However, earlier Gospels do not include this story; and it would have to be assumed that such powerful evidence to support Jesus’ bodily resurrection would have been included in the early writings had the disciples known of it.
Apart from stories appearing at the end of the four Gospels, we also have the testimony of Paul who, besides citing the experiences of others, claimed to have seen Jesus himself while walking on the road to Damascus. And Jesus himself had told the disciples that, not only would he have to die, but he would later rise from the dead.
Jesus’ own view of the Resurrection
The death of Jesus and his subsequent elevation to a supernatural being put Jesus into a proper form for the Messiah. But it is not necessarily the Messiah people expected. That Messiah would come upon the clouds of Heaven to establish the supernatural Kingdom of God. Nature and human history would then be transformed into a timeless and perfect state of existence. That obviously did not happen. Jesus may have risen again, but he was not yet revealed as the judge and ruler of God’s kingdom on earth. What are Jesus’ own views about this?
How did Jesus picture his resurrection? Did he think he would be immediately transformed into the Son of Man who would come with power and glory “on the clouds of heaven” or would this come later? It seems that, when Jesus sent the disciples on a mission to visit the towns of Israel, he did expect to be so transformed. What about later? When Jesus offered testimony before the High Priest referring to “the Son of Man ... coming on the clouds of heaven”, did he think this would happen immediately after he was resurrected? Probably not. Jesus had told the disciples on the Mount of Olives following the Last Supper that “after I am raised again, I will go on before you into Galilee.” (Matthew 26: 32)
What is one to make of this statement? One interpretation would be that, as Jesus had walked from Galilee to Jerusalem at the head of his company, so he would walk with these same people back to Galilee after being resurrected in Jerusalem. However, persons resurrected from death to become supernatural beings do not walk in the company of men; they travel “on the clouds of heaven.” A more likely explanation is that Jesus would appear in Galilee because that is where he preached the coming of God’s kingdom and attracted a following. That would be an appropriate place for Jesus to be revealed “in his Messianic glory”. Jerusalem would not be such a place because it was the city that killed prophets.
In a later tradition, the 28th chapter of Matthew includes a passage about an angel instructing the two Marys to tell the disciples that they are to go to Galilee to meet Jesus, who was expecting to lead a common journey back to there. According to Acts, Jesus continued to appear to people for forty days after his resurrection. “Because of the words spoken (by Jesus) on the way to Gethsemane, the disciples, and with them a hundred and twenty believers from Galilee, stay on after the death of Jesus in Jerusalem. (Acts 1-2) Here they experience appearances of the risen Lord. But still he does not lead them to Galilee.
When the appearances stopped, the Christian community believed that Jesus was now in heaven. Before being martyred, Stephen had a vision of the heavens opening and revealing the Son of Man at the right hand of God. Saul (Paul), too, saw Jesus in heaven. A later tradition holds that after Jesus’ earthly mission, he bade farewell to his disciples and promptly ascended to heaven.
“Strictly speaking,” Schweitzer observes, “we should speak of Jesus’ coming as the Messiah, not of his return. For the earliest Christian believers his appearance in glory as the Messiah, expected in the immediate future, was so much in the foreground of their faith that they use for it the term Parousia, arrival. His previous human existence is not included in it. We find it more natural to speak of his return, and there is no reason why we should give up doing so. We must only bear in mind that for believers of the earliest period it was not the Jesus who had come forward in Galilee, but only the risen Lord, who was the Messiah.”
Origin of the Atoning Death
Besides believing in Jesus as Messiah, primitive Christians also came to believe that Jesus had purchased forgiveness of sins for believers through his own death. During his lifetime, Jesus had taught that God would forgive those who forgave others. That alone was sufficient for salvation. Yet, the early Christian community came to believe that Jesus’ death had brought the forgiveness of sins. A scriptural basis for this view would be passages in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah which spoke of the death of the Suffering Servant as an atoning death: “He was cut off from the world of living men, stricken to the death for my people’s transgression ...” (Isaiah 53: 8)
The scriptural purpose of Jesus’ death was to cancel the pre-Messianic tribulation. Yet, the early Christians accepted without question the idea that Jesus’ death brought about the forgiveness of sins needed for them to enter the Kingdom. Why was this? It may have been because of John’s baptism. John the Baptist had introduced a ritual considered effective for the forgiveness of sins. In his cult, one needed to be baptized in order to be forgiven. While Jesus’ teaching was different, the principle of washing away sins to obtain forgiveness was easily understood. John’s cult enjoyed much prestige among the early Christians. In time, the doctrine of Jesus’ atoning death came to replace Jesus’ own teaching about forgiveness of sins.
Outpouring of spirit as a sign that the Kingdom is near
In addition to belief in Jesus as Messiah and in his Atoning Death, there is a third element in early Christian doctrine: “the belief that the bestowal of the Spirit has actually taken place.” The book of Acts reports a miraculous event on the day of Pentecost when the disciples and other followers of Jesus “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance.” (Acts 2: 4) This experience was interpreted as a sign that the Kingdom of God was near.
Glossolaly - “speaking in tongues” - was thought to be a spiritual gift. Seized by Spirit, one was able to utter strange words coming from God. The author of Acts may have misinterpreted the Pentecostal experience by stating that the linguistically diverse group of persons who had gathered for a feast in memory of Jesus were each speaking in their national tongue. This “miracle” of speaking in particular languages belongs to a later tradition. Originally, glossolaly consisted of speaking in a state of ecstatic excitement that was not easily understood. The early Christians interpreted this as a “Spirit-given language.”
The apostle Paul, who had the gift himself, preferred to use ordinary language to instruct Christian communities. Gradually the practice of speaking in tongues disappeared, though it has lately been revived among charismatic groups. Its significance for early Christians was not as a display of religious fervor but a sign that the physical world was dissolving into spirit and, therefore, the Kingdom of God was near.
John the Baptist introduced baptism as a means of washing away sins and making a person fit to enter the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Mark, John is quoted: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1: 8) John was the destined Elijah who would precede the Messiah, the resurrected Jesus. Jesus, who accepted John’s baptism, did not himself baptize. Despite a passage later inserted into the Gospel of Matthew about baptizing men “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”, the rite of baptism was not part of Jesus’ routine. How did it enter Christian practice?
Baptism in the name of Jesus meant being admitted into the fellowship of those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and who awaited the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. Through baptism one obtained forgiveness of sins which would enable one to enter the Kingdom through the atoning death of Jesus. It also gave the capacity to receive Spirit. Belonging to Jesus effects salvation.
Once John the Baptist died, there was no further baptism in his cult. Even Jesus acknowledged that it was a past practice. There was no need for baptism in the period following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those who were with Jesus in this life were also to be his companions in Heaven.
The problem was that historical time continued indefinitely as arrival of God’s Kingdom was delayed. Many people joined the Christian community who had not known Jesus personally. What was the status of these people? They could not be assured of salvation as Jesus’ earthly companions could be. Something had to be done for them. A solution was found in John’s baptism for forgiveness of sins. This practice was taken over by Christians.
The first Christian baptism occurred at the feast of Pentecost. Here believers who had not known Jesus were baptized by the disciples and others among the “one hundred and twenty” persons who were Jesus’ former companions. The latter had not been baptized because for them the ritual was unnecessary. However, the apostle Paul, a convert to Jesus’ teaching, did need and receive baptism.
John’s ritual was accepted by the early Christian community because its memory was fresh in their minds. Jesus himself had said that came from God. (Mark 11: 27-33) Christian baptism required no special authority. Salvation was effected by accepting a relationship with Jesus, the future Messiah. Those who were baptized in his name received the same forgiveness of sins that had been earlier obtained through the authority of John.
Christian baptism, which confers the Holy Spirit, fulfills John’s statement about “the one who comes after me (who) is mightier than I.” Like the baptism of John, it effects salvation. The two kinds of baptism coexisted for a time as in the case of twelve Christians at Ephesus who were first baptized by John and later by Paul, who imparted Spirit. Yet, it is untrue that to receive spirit one had first to be baptized in water. The book of Acts includes numerous examples of persons (including the apostles) who received spirit without having been baptized in water. Paul consistently argued that Christian baptism brought both forgiveness of sins and a capacity to receive the gift of Spirit. Both indicated future membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yet, baptism had a significant limitation: Christian baptism forgave sins already committed. Its healing effect did not extend to future sins. That had not been such a concern because Jesus’ followers expected the Kingdom of God to come soon. Believers were expected to maintain themselves in a condition of sanctity until that event happened. But as time went by, it became clear that baptized persons would probably not experience the Kingdom’s arrival, yet the inclination to sin would remain. This meant that the forgiveness of sins received through baptism was not sufficient for salvation.
Another problem was that the righteous of previous generations would be denied salvation unless they received Christian baptism and believed in the atoning death of Jesus; and both were impossible. The author of the First Epistle of Peter deals with this question in supposing that Jesus preached the Gospel to the spirits of the dead in the period between his own death and resurrection. In the second century A.D., a work written in Rome, known as “the Shepherd of Hermas”, advanced the theory that those who had died before Jesus’ time would have to receive baptism at the resurrection in order to enter the Kingdom of God.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark do not show that Jesus ever commanded his disciples to repeat the Last Supper. Yet, it soon became a mainstay of Christian practice. There was a saying of Jesus, which Paul quotes in First Corinthians (11:23-25), to the effect that his followers should repeat that meal in memory of him. Originally, however, the meal was called “the breaking of the bread”. It was a community meal undertaken in a festive spirit rather than one somberly remembering Jesus’ death. Paul called it a “love feast” and a “thanksgiving meal.”
Christians came to associate the Eucharist with a ritual which regards the bread as the body of Christ and the wine as Christ’s blood. The Last Supper became a mystical experience for the community of worshipers. Although in the Gospel of Luke Jesus says “this is my body” in reference to the bread consumed at the Last Supper, such symbolism played little part in the early communal meal. Paul referred to it as a sobering influence: The Corinthians were instructed not to allow that joyous meal to degenerate into an orgy but be mindful that it commemorates Jesus’ death. Paul did not teach that eating and drinking during the meal would bring forgiveness of sins through the atoning death of Jesus.
No, to the early Christians, the communal meal eaten in commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with the disciples was simply a meal of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for what? It was thanksgiving not only for food and drink, but also for God’s grace in allowing believers to participate in a future meal that would take place shortly in Heaven. Thanks is given to God for the Messianic banquet to which the believers look forward shortly.
Indeed, the theme underlying this meal which Jesus’ followers enjoyed together in his memory was much the same as that for Jesus’ meal with the disciples shortly before his death. In both cases, those seated at the table were celebrating a feast prophetically linked to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is clear about this. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus asks the disciples to drink wine from a cup. He says: “I tell you, never again shall I drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father.” (Matthew 26: 29)
From a prophetic standpoint, this meal hearkens back to the passage in the 25th chapter of Isaiah where “the Lord of Hosts will prepare a banquet of rich fares for all peoples, a banquet of wines well matured” on his holy mountain. (Isaiah 25: 6) It means simply that whoever participates in this meal with Jesus will soon be in the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus might return
The thanksgiving meal was not a meal of simple thanks for food and drink but for the promise of a similar meal to come in Heaven. The Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”, dates from the end of the 1st century A.D. Its prayer asks God to gather together his church “from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom,” meaning that those who now belong to the church should also be gathered together in Heaven. The prayer ends with the words “Marana tha. Amen.” “Marana tha” is an Aramaic expression which means “Our Lord, come!” A Greek translation says: “Amen: come, Lord Jesus!” The early Christian community was looking forward to Jesus’ appearance as the Messiah who would introduce the Kingdom of Heaven.
The fact that at the Last Supper Jesus had spoken of drinking wine anew with the disciples suggested to them that they should repeat the supper in hopes that Jesus might attend. The early Christians believed that Jesus would return to earth during a thanksgiving meal which he would celebrate with them as a Messianic banquet in the Kingdom. The Kingdom itself would arrive at the moment of his return.
From the first Easter on, they and the hundred and twenty believers from Galilee kept on celebrating the thanksgiving meal in order that the hope aroused by that saying might come to pass. They held the daily thanksgiving meal in the same room in which they were with Jesus at the Last Supper.
Some believe that Christians first held their communal meals in the house of the mother of John Mark, who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. This might also be the room where Jesus and the disciples held their last supper. Unlike that event with Jesus, however, the post-Resurrection communal meal took place in the morning. That was because Jesus’ resurrection had happened in the morning and one assumed his return would take place at the same time of day. The fact that Jesus’ followers expected their Lord to return at one of these meals also accounts for the ecstatic excitement. The speaking with tongues on the morning of Pentecost might have begun during a thanksgiving meal.
As the Christian community became dispersed to many places, the idea that Jesus would appear to his followers at a communal meal became harder to accept. There was no longer a meal in one place (such as the house of John Mark’s mother), but in places throughout the Mediterranean area. Therefore, the earlier view gave way to the idea that Jesus would return to earth during the same thanksgiving meal held in many different places if these celebrations were synchronized.
That meant that the different meals all had to be held on the same day at the same hour The celebration came to be held everywhere early in the morning of the day after the sabbath. The day of Christ’s resurrection was considered an appropriate time for his return.” The Didache called the day after the Sabbath “the Lord’s Day”, which would be the day when the Eucharist would be celebrated each week.
The Easter holiday was also related to expectations of Jesus’ return. Christians everywhere looked forward to the return of Jesus and the appearance of the Kingdom on that day. This scheme presupposes that all Christians celebrated Easter on the same day. However, the churches of Asia Minor celebrated Easter on a different day than Rome. The bishop of Rome demanded that other churches conform to the Roman dating of Easter. When the churches of Asia Minor refused, relations between them and the Roman church were suspended and remained broken for a century. Finally, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., it was decided that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the spring equinox.
The Easter holiday was especially important to the early Christians because of its association with the expected appearance of the Kingdom of God and the coming of Jesus in Messianic glory. Through baptism, believers became able to enter the Kingdom. Participation in the eucharist brought assurance of belonging to the Kingdom and sharing in the Messianic banquet. Only after hopes of Jesus’ imminent return to earth had subsided did the Eucharist become a celebration of “consecrated elements”.
Part X. Paul’s view of the Kingdom
The Kingdom has already come
The Apostles believed that the Kingdom of God would arrive soon after Jesus’ resurrection. However, there was an interval of time when that event was expected but had not yet happened. The Kingdom seemed to be perpetually delayed. Paul could not accept that view. He tried to understand the situation. He supposed that the Kingdom, somehow, must already have come. The resurrection of Jesus had brought about the Kingdom. Yet, appearances suggested otherwise.
It is a remarkable stretch of thinking to suppose that the Kingdom of God must already have come when the prophets and Jesus himself believed that the Kingdom would be a supernatural realm suddenly replacing the physical world. This notion defies common sense. Visible evidence after Christ’s death and resurrection suggested that the physical world remained intact. Far from coming under God’s complete direction, evil seemed to be increasing in the world as historical events moved towards Jerusalem’s destruction by Roman armies. In that context, Paul was arguing, on one hand, that the Kingdom is “already present”, yet, on the other, that “its appearance is yet to come”. What does that mean?
Schweitzer explained: “Paul finds the solution of the problem given in the view that, from the death and resurrection of Jesus onward, the world is in process of transformation from its temporal state into the supernatural state of the Kingdom of God. At first the Kingdom begins to achieve its realization invisibly. It remains in this state during the short period until the coming of Jesus in his glory. When this occurs it will be visible in its complete reality. The new day is therefore on the point of dawning, only the sun has not yet risen.”
Paul saw the world moving from a state of corruption toward the incorruptible state associated with the Kingdom. It was a movement from the visible to the invisible as Spirit acquired increasing presence. He wrote in the letter to the Corinthians that “the whole frame of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7: 31) The transformation had gone furthest with those who destined to enter the Kingdom of God. Their bodies, like that of Jesus, had started to be transformed. From the moment of his death and resurrection, they too had begun to undergo the same process.”
This mystical idea of “dying and rising again with Christ” is the image that Paul puts forth to explain the condition in which the early Christian community found itself. Christian baptism, which brought a person into association with Jesus, meant that the person shared Jesus’ fate. Because he belongs to Christ, the process of death and resurrection is now at work in him.
Paul states this plainly: “Have you forgotten that when we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus we were baptized into his death? By baptism we were buried with him, and lay dead, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendor of the father, so also we might set our feet upon the new path of life. For if we have become incorporate with him in a death like his, we shall also be one with him in a resurrection like his ... In the same way you must regard yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God, in union with Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3: 3-5, 11)
Such words would be incomprehensible to one unfamiliar with Paul’s eschatological thinking. His mystical perspective arises, not from the Greek mystery religions, but in the transition to the Kingdom by which the temporal and supernatural worlds are already mixed together.
Like Jesus, Paul believed that Jesus’ death would bring about the Kingdom; however, their views were otherwise different. While still alive, Jesus foresaw that his own death would cancel the prescribed period of tribulation which was then the only obstacle left to the Kingdom’s arrival. Paul, on the other hand, cannot deny that Jesus’ death and resurrection has already taken place. For him, the Kingdom of God has come already.
Satan’s angelic host
For Paul, the agenda now was, through Jesus, to overcome the dominion of angelic beings who used their power contrary to God’s purposes. In the late Jewish view these were responsible for the deplorable condition of the natural world. The Messiah would put an end to their rule.
Recognizing him as an adversary, the evil one had tried to defeat Jesus by having him crucified. Christ’s subsequent resurrection from the dead showed that this angelic force led by Satan had no power over him. In fact, the crucifixion marked a turning point in God’s relationship with all who loved Him. After the resurrection, the angels were no longer able to reproach men before God. In Jesus, humanity had a potent intercessor.
“Who will be the accuser of God’s chosen ones?” Paul asks in his letter to the Romans. “It is God who pronounces acquittal; then who can condemn? It is Christ - Christ who died, and, more than that, was raised from the dead - who is at God’s right hand, and indeed pleads our cause. Then what can separate us from the love of Christ.” (Romans 8: 33-35)
Even so, the evil force tried to resist its own decline by throwing obstacles in the path of ones who would spread the Gospel. Paul believed, for instance, that it was Satan who prevented him from returning to Thessalonica. (1 Thessalonians 2: 18) At other times, an angel of Satan struck Paul with his fist. ( 2 Corinthians 12: 7) Satan himself propagated an adulterated version of the doctrine concerning Christ’s death and resurrection. (2 Corinthians 11: 13-15)
The evil force would continue to have some power until death itself was abolished at the end of time. It would only be extinguished at the end of the Messianic kingdom when the resurrection of the dead took place and the Kingdom of God succeeded the Kingdom of the Messiah.
The two kingdoms
Paul’s view of the final days includes the two supernatural kingdoms which late Jewish prophets thought would come after the Messiah’s arrived on earth. The first was a kingdom ruled by the Messiah which would last for a certain time. The second was God’s kingdom which would follow the other one and last forever. A general resurrection of the dead would occur between the two reigns.
Paul differs from Jesus in this respect. For Jesus, the Messianic Kingdom is identical with the Kingdom of God. The righteous of not only the final generation but of all generations belong to this Kingdom. In contrast, Paul embraces the eschatology of the late Judaic scribes who wrote the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra. He distinguishes between the Messianic Kingdom and the subsequent Kingdom of God.
While Paul’s conception is based on scripture, he must adapt his scheme to the known teachings of Jesus. As a result, his eschatological view matches neither that of Jesus nor Baruch and Ezra, but is a hybrid. The two late Jewish apocalyptists had envisioned that only the righteous elect of the last generation would inhabit the Messianic Kingdom. Along with others, they would later be resurrected into a supernatural form to enter the Kingdom of God. Paul changes this scheme to let inhabitants of the Messianic Kingdom exist in the resurrection state, either because they have risen from the dead or because they have been transformed. This Kingdom then ceases to be different from the Kingdom of God.
Paul retains, however, the view of Baruch and Ezra that in the Kingdom of God God alone is the ruler. That means that the Messiah must give back to God the power which he had held as ruler of the Messianic kingdom when the Kingdom of God arrives. In the Gospels, Jesus has nothing to say on this subject since for him the Kingdom of God and the Messianic kingdom are the same. His followers and the righteous dead are both resurrected into this Kingdom.
What to make of the older view that the Messianic kingdom includes only those righteous ones who were alive in the last generation? Paul sees a continuation of the process which began with Jesus’ own resurrection. The elect still alive will be resurrected at the coming of the (Messianic) Kingdom as will those righteous persons who have died.
Paul’s views are expressed in a passage from First Thessalonians that describes an event known as “the Rapture”. Paul writes: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus. For this we tell you as the Lord’s word: we who are left alive until the Lord comes shall not forestall those who have died; because at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet-call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4: 14-18)
Spirit gradually appearing
Prophetic tradition had always held that God’s Kingdom would come in a cataclysmic event bringing an end to human history. Jesus himself believed this. When the Kingdom of God arrived, his followers would be suddenly transformed into a supernatural state to become like angels. Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead seemed to demonstrate how that could happen.
Paul, however, is compelled to face the fact that no such cataclysm has taken place in the world. Instead of it happening suddenly, he sees the transformation into a supernatural state as an event taking place over time. The interim period Paul sees as a time when the Kingdom is being invisibly developed starting with Jesus’ resurrection and ending in the full-blown Kingdom.
Like Elijah’s appearance or the pre-Messianic tribulation, the outpouring of spirit prophesied by Joel was thought to be an event preceding the Kingdom. Paul was forced to recognize, however, that the spiritual manifestations at the feast of Pentecost occurred after the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus’ resurrection introduced the Kingdom, that meant that the appearance of spirit was occurring within the Kingdom rather than before it arrived. The Kingdom would then have to be something different than what was previously imagined.
Most early Christians retained the earlier scheme. For them, the outpouring of spirit suggested that the Kingdom, however near, had not yet come. Paul, on the other hand, believed that the Kingdom had arrived with Jesus’ resurrection and that Spirit, belonging to this age of the Kingdom, was evidence that it had come.
Because Paul assumed that the Kingdom had already come, he had now to see the Spirit as a manifestation of a Kingdom already present, and try to understand what this meant. What about speaking in tongues? Paul saw this as a visible sign of spirit but cautioned against being unduly proud of such gifts. Everything constituting the now-present Kingdom of God must be a result of spirit. Spirit is that which drives the transformation of the physical world into the supernatural world of God’s kingdom. The resurrection of Jesus is the work of the Spirit dwelling in him. Christians as a community, together belonging to Christ, experience Christ’s resurrection. Paul said they had the “first fruits of the Spirit.” (Romans 8: 23)
Whereas Jesus had gathered a band of followers who gained entry to the Kingdom by virtue of being his companions on earth, Paul conceived that baptized believers, belonging to the risen Lord, were incorporated in a mystical body. (See 1 Corinthians 12: 13.) They had no longer an existence of their own, but shared a body in common with Christ and all other believers. Paul says that they are, in fact, ‘the body of Christ.’ They partake both of Christ’s and God’s spirit. However, Christian believers must take pains to remain in a spiritual state and not lapse into worldliness and again be ones who “live in the flesh”; for they would then lose their claim to enter the Kingdom of God, including the power to rise from the dead.
As ones possessing the Spirit of God, Christians also have a special kind of knowledge. It is knowledge, like Christ’s, which comes directly from God. Its gift has been generally available only since the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was this kind of knowledge which inspired Paul when he was writing the epistles. This Gospel, he wrote in a letter to the Galatians, “is no human invention. I did not take it over from any man; no man taught it (to) me; I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1: 11-12) Therefore, Paul was not drawing inspiration from memories of the earthly Jesus, or from any of his sayings, but from the spirit of the living Christ. Not “Jesus in the flesh”, but Jesus as the risen Messiah, was sending Paul the knowledge.
Part XI. Paul’s ethic
The ethic of love
Paul’s view of God’s kingdom required a different ethic than what Jesus had preached. Jesus had put forth an ethical scheme appropriate to the Kingdom expected shortly to appear. He meant to prepare his followers for that situation. Paul likewise looked forward to the Kingdom’s replacing the current order of the world, but he also to tell the Christian community how to behave in the meanwhile. Paul’s was also an ethic of the Kingdom, since he believed it had come with Christ’s resurrection. The implications of this belief were anything but clear.
The Spirit of Jesus taught Paul that love is the highest good. Paul often urged Christians to show love to one another and to the world. “Stand firm in the faith ... Let all you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16: 14) “If we are in union with Christ Jesus, circumcision makes no difference at all, nor does the want of it; the only thing that counts is faith, active in love.” (Galatians 5: 6)
Perhaps Paul’s best-known statement on this subject is found in First Corinthians: “I may speak in tongues of men or of angels, but if I am without love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may dole out all I possess, or even given my body to be burnt, but if I have no love, I am none the better. Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude, not quick to take offense ... When I was a child, my speech, my outlook, and my thoughts were all childish. When I grew up, I had finished with childish things. Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of me. In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.” (1 Corinthians 13: 1-5, 12-13)
Jesus also had put forth an ethic of love. This ethic superseded the Law as a requirement for the higher righteousness necessary to enter the Kingdom of God. In Paul’s case, it was not a question of qualifications to enter the Kingdom of God. God granted such entrance to all believers through the grace imparted by Christ’s death. Man being inherently sinful, it is impossible to achieve love by willful acts seeking righteousness. Love comes about only through the spirit of God. It is present only in that higher state of human existence (given by God) through the granting to them of the Spirit. Their love flows from God’s love poured out upon them and the whole world, “shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Ghost.” (Romans 5:5)
Paul does not base his ethic of love upon Jesus’ teaching. It comes from the Spirit which comes from Christ and is made possible only by the Spirit acting upon Paul himself. Therefore, the Christian doctrines concerning love come from two different sources: Jesus and Paul. Paul’s ethic concerns the period between Jesus’ resurrection and the Kingdom’s appearance upon his return. In its concealed existence, the Kingdom is at once supernatural and ethical. In such manner, Paul moves away from late-Jewish eschatological expectations to the view of earlier prophets who saw the Kingdom in terms of an ethical spirit that allowed men to act according to God’s will.
Paul’s ethic pertained only to the Kingdom in a period of incomplete development. Once Jesus appeared in glory, a purely supernatural Kingdom would emerge without any need for ethical guidance. Those who inhabited that Kingdom would be “perfect beings” eternally redeemed from the imperfect world. In reality, the months and years which Paul envisaged for the concealed existence of the Kingdom have, however, been stretched into centuries and millennia.
Concessions to the world
For a religion that foresaw the end of the world, Christianity did not go off the deep end in urging complete neglect of worldly concerns. Paul, even more than Jesus, acknowledged the practical realities which Christians faced in their lives. While they needed to “free themselves” of worldly attachments, that did not mean ignoring all requirements of the natural world. For instance, Paul showed a certain ambivalence toward marriage. If married, a person should stay married; if not, refrain from marriage. While the world may end soon, one would not want meanwhile to lapse into sinful behavior. Therefore, make no changes that would be potentially damaging to salvation. Spiritual, not outward, detachment from worldly things is important to Paul.
Paul’s teaching about work is pragmatic: “The man who will not work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3: 10) Expecting the world to end soon, the early Christian community had an economy based on property donations. There was no use in piling up goods which would disappear as soon as God’s Kingdom arrived. On the other hand, to abandon work as a requirement for using property presented an unwholesome opportunity to free-loaders. Paul saw idleness as a spiritual danger. Work also brought the material independence that a moral person needs. Paul himself took pride in supporting himself as a weaver of canvas, instead of drawing upon support from his congregations. (See 1 Thessalonians 2: 9.)
Paul believed in orderly processes. Even when gifts of the spirit are displayed, “all things (should) be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14: 40) He urged Christians at Thessalonica to “live at peace among yourselves ... admonish the careless, encourage the faint-hearted ..” (1 Thessalonians 5: 14) For this reason, too, Paul recommended cooperation with worldly authorities to whom God had entrusted the responsibility for maintaining order in society. “Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution.” (Romans 13: 1-2) Late Jewish tradition, responding to foreign domination, had adopted the same attitude. So long as the Jews were allowed religious freedom, they accepted political subservience. Paul favored this policy as well for the Christian community.
Christ’s atoning death
Jesus foresaw that his own death would bring about the Kingdom of God because it would cancel the prerequisite of the pre-Messianic tribulation. Living after Jesus’ death, Paul regarded that death as an atonement for sin. The crucified Jesus was a sacrificial offering whose blood redeemed many. “For all alike have sinned ... and all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus. For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith.” (Romans 3: 23-25) Christ’s self-sacrifice brought forgiveness of sins.
Because Paul believed that Christ’s resurrection brought about the Kingdom of God, his views were different from those of many other Christians. Paul did not see that Christians would have their sins forgiven when the Kingdom came in the future. He thought their sins were already forgiven. Christians were already living in the Kingdom because, as members of Christ’s corporate body, they had died and risen with him. Existing in a resurrected state, they were unable to sin. They were, in Paul’s words, “dead to sin” even as Christ was. (Romans 6: 11) Sharing in his resurrection, their feet were on a “new path of life.” (Romans 6: 4)
The result of having died and risen with Christ was that baptized Christians were freed from the demands of their bodies. They were free of sin and emancipated from death. Having received spirit, they lived in a spiritualized world associated with the Kingdom of God. However, this view raised the question of what happens to Christians who relapse into physical desire. Paul believed they would then lose spirit and become able to sin again. They would again be subject to death. “It follows, my friends, that our lower nature has no claim upon us; we are not obliged to live on that level. If you do so, you must die. But if by the Spirit you put to death all the base pursuits of the body, then you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13)
Like the writer of the Apocalypse of Baruch, Paul believed that sin and death came into the world through Adam. Believers might recover their primal heritage by renouncing sin and bodily desires to become resurrected like Christ.
Opposition to the Law
Paul was opposed to moral claims based on the Law of Moses. It was not just that he believed that Christ’s way was superior to the Law but that the latter was an actual impediment to faith. It was holding people back from the promise of God. Paul, like many scribes of the day, believed that the Law applied only until the age of the Kingdom of God. He therefore opposed the view that Gentile Christians were under an obligation to accept the Law before they became Christians. Not that the Law was unnecessary, it was an impediment to salvation.
Most in the early Christian community who were looking forward to a future arrival of the Kingdom believed that the Law was still valid. The Judaizing Christians were opposed to Paul’s position. Paul, however, argued that the Law was not given to Moses by God but by God’s angels. “Then what of the Law? ... It was promulgated through angels,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 3: 19) Late Jewish thinkers had come to think of God in such exalted terms that they could not conceive of his having direct contact with men. Only angels would communicate with them.
From that insight, Paul draws the conclusion that the obedience demanded to the Law does not concern God but only the angels and that, in turn, confirms the presence of angelic dominion. For Gentile Christians, the requirement of obeying the Law would be tantamount to handing them over to the dominion of the angelic powers just at the moment when these are about to become defeated by Christ. Without knowing it, those Christians would be giving up their existence in Christ and so losing their right to belong to the Kingdom.
Even before Paul, some late Jewish scholars had argued that the Law would not help men achieve righteousness since man had inherited an incurable tendency to sin from Adam. The Law could not help someone become good but only make him aware of his sinfulness. The angels gave the Law to God’s people not because they desired their well-being but because they desired their misery. They kept people bound to the hopeless task of trying to fulfill the Law in order to keep them under their control.
Now that Christ’s resurrection had won salvation for members of the Christian community, the angelic powers were trying frantically to maintain control by propagating a “gospel of ignorance.” They promoted the false idea that Christians must first join the Jews in fulfilling all the requirements of Moses’ law. In reality, Christian believers were justified by faith, not by obedience to Law. “For our argument is that a man is justified by faith apart from success in keeping the law,” Paul said. (Romans 3: 28)
The centerpiece of Christian salvation, however, was not faith but the forgiveness of sins that comes from the mystical participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Belonging to his corporate body, “we die to the Law, as we do to the flesh, to sin and to death.” The atoning death of Jesus justified salvation through faith but did not in itself entail freedom from the Law. This latter principle was based on the mystical doctrine of “existence in Christ” which Paul created from his special knowledge as guided by Spirit.
Paul takes it for granted that Christians will make a continuous effort to do what is good, but good works alone will not gain salvation. That is won by “existence in Christ” gained through faith and baptism. Even so, a person who is guided by Spirit will necessarily show good works. Good works are a sign of salvation, not its cause. However, this means that a person lacking the fruit of good works will not be possessing the Spirit. It is inconceivable that someone who is truly redeemed would not bear fruit.
Paul advanced the controversial doctrine that, while Gentile believers should not adopt the Law, Jewish believers ought to go on observing it. This was not disparate treatment but obedience to the general principle that the believer should remain in the outward condition in which he was first converted. Therefore, Jewish converts to Jesus should remain obedient to the Law, while Gentile converts should stay clear of it. The same principle applies to enslaved and free people, married and single worshipers; they should stay in their original condition.
Do baptized Christians stay saved?
Along with other early Christians, Paul believed that the forgiveness of sins imparted by Christ’s atoning death and communal participation in his resurrection applied only to sins committed before baptism. Christian baptism is not carte blanche authority to commit sins and be forgiven for the rest of one’s life. However, the possibility that one might continue to commit sins did not trouble the early Christian community because it was assumed that God’s Kingdom would come soon. In view of the proximity of the Kingdom, there would be no time for further acts of sin.
Paul believed that baptism would bring a person into the community of those who shared Christ’s death and resurrection and were thereby granted entrance into the Kingdom of God. There need not be an effort to obtain the assurance of forgiveness as Martin Luther supposed. Believers were saints by virtue of their baptism. As John the Baptist had offered salvation through a simple ritual, so the followers of Jesus believed that Christian baptism in itself brought forgiveness of sins and thereby put one in a state of grace with respect to the Kingdom.
Still, Paul had to deal with the fact that many baptized Christians did relapse into sin because the Kingdom in its final manifestation had failed to come as soon as expected. Paul names the kinds of behavior - fornication, idolatry, adultery, theft, etc. - which would cause a person to forfeit the Kingdom of God. Even so, he never closed the door on the possibility that persons committing such sins would nevertheless find salvation. Only one sin was beyond forgiveness: that of falsifying the gospel by the doctrine that Gentile believers should be made to accept the Law.That sin was worse than others because instead of just harming the sinner himself it caused another person to go astray.
Paul proposed a doctrine of God’s Kingdom having already come which was added to the older view of expecting that Kingdom to arrive in the future. His doctrine was based the idea that since Jesus’ death and resurrection the world has been in a process of transformation from the natural to a supernatural state. At first, the supernatural Kingdom would be largely invisible but, like the dawning of a new day, it might be increasingly seen as time went by. Logical in its own way, Paul’s doctrine was not completely understood or accepted by the early Christian community.
Both Paul and others in the early Christian community expected the Kingdom of God to arrive on earth in a palpable way. It obviously had not happened. The same old rotten things continued to appear in this world. But Paul was determined to find a way that the Kingdom of God could have arrived already, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, so that Christianity would have a future.
Subsequent generations of Christians may not have understood their predecessors’ urgent expectations of the Kingdom, but they did have Paul’s words. The epistles of Paul represented an immense intellectual undertaking. Its concepts had a powerful influence upon the formation of the Christian faith in subsequent periods of time.
Paul gave Christianity the “doctrine of the Spirit”. Without this, Christians would have had to interpret the outpouring of spirit at the feast of Pentecost as a sign that the Kingdom was near. When the Kingdom failed to appear, faith would likely have been lost. Paul’s conception of the Spirit as a vital energy source coming from faith in Christ gave Christianity a chance of renewal. Christians could accept the Gospel as true.
One gift which the Christian community received from Paul was his “doctrine of the forgiveness of sins”. Paul taught that forgiveness came through faith in Christ’s atoning death. An alternative view places the means of salvation in church sacraments. From Paul’s writings, Protestant Christians derived the concept of “continuous forgiveness of sins”; and, from that, “the doctrine of justification by faith”. The idea of continuous forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus solved Christianity’s most difficult problem, which was the Kingdom’s failure to come at a time and in such a manner as was expected by the early Christian community.
If Jesus is the Messiah who brings the Kingdom of God, this Kingdom must already have come: that was Paul’s belief. Dominated by this conviction, Paul experienced through spirit its present reality and expressed it in the imagery of his time. The expectation of the Kingdom which would come of itself was not to find actual fulfillment. Paul’s doctrines helped the Christian community to come to terms with this fact, and give up its previous ideas.
Part XII. Prophecies of a Second Coming
Historical Background: After Jesus’ death and resurrection
The Judaean holocaust of 70 A.D. drove Jewish populations from their homeland to cities throughout the Roman world. Raised with Messianic expectations, they spread the message of the risen Christ. Cities such as Antioch, Corinth, Alexandria, and Rome itself acquired substantial Christian populations. Christian missionaries became engaged in an ideological struggle with Jewish traditionalists, Greek philosophers, and officials of the Roman state. Around 55 A.D. Peter left Antioch for Rome to become head of the church in that city. Both he and Paul died there while tending the flock.
When Rome burned in 64 A.D., the Roman emperor Nero blamed Christians for setting the fires. There followed a period of intense persecution which claimed the lives of Peter, Paul, and many others. Historians tell of Christians being thrown to the lions to amuse crowds at the Coliseum.
Yet, there were also other reasons why Rome hated the Judaean sect. The early Christians were pacifists who refused to serve in the imperial army. They refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the emperor or honor his spirit. In Roman eyes, they were unpatriotic, morbid types who embraced the slave values of love and submission over those of manly strength. Their irrational faith in a crucified leader mocked the higher truths of Greco-Roman philosophy. Their Eucharistic feast smacked of cannibalism.
Even so, many Christians remained steadfast in the faith. Some chose to die rather than pledge allegiance to the pagan state. The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church. In fact, Christianity’s clash with the Roman state was a struggle between competing religions. Emperor worship was the official religion. Additionally, the state used other religions, philosophies, and mystery cults as a means of enlisting popular support. The traditional gods and goddesses of Rome were combined with other people’s gods in a pantheon of national gods to create a religious structure mirroring the political empire. But the spirits of Rome had to be supreme; and Judeo-Christian monotheism could not accept that arrangement.
Other religions also vied for dominance in the Roman world. The Persian religion of Mithras had a savior-god who slew a bull. The god Jupiter Dolichenus, from northern Syria, was a favorite of Roman soldiers. In Egypt, the cult of Isis and Osiris featured a grieving mother and reborn savior. Manichaeism, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism founded in the third century A.D., gained converts. The philosophy of neo-Platonism functioned as a religion, as did the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies. Additionally, there were mystery cults such as those devoted to the Phrygian goddess Cybele, Demeter and Persephone in Eleusis, and the Greek god Dionysos, that featured symbolic rituals and promised eternal life.
Within Christianity itself were sectarian movements spawned by philosophical arguments about the nature of Jesus. Was Jesus a God or was he a man; or was he, perhaps, both? Gnostic Christians, influenced by neo-Platonism, stressed Jesus’ divine nature while tending to ignore his human side. Arian Christians, on the other hand, denied that Jesus was a god, or Son of God, maintaining that he was entirely subservient to God, the Father. Marcion, an advocate of pure love, denied the Law of Moses. Montanus claimed to be the Spirit of Truth promised in the Gospel of John. Pelagius, opposing Augustine’s view of grace, taught that man was inherently good and could willfully defeat sin. Given these different beliefs, the church felt it necessary to impose ideological order. It did so in the name of combating heresies.
An important role in the church was therefore played by “church fathers”, theologians, and apologists for the faith who opposed divergent religious views and kept the faithful on the right track. In Roman times, Justin Martyr defended Christianity against criticisms brought by pagan philosophers and Jewish traditionalists. He responded to the charge of “atheism” which supporters of emperor worship leveled against the church. Tertullian refuted the idea that Christians were disloyal to the Roman state. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, composed a liturgy and effectively protected the interests of the church against the Roman state. Origen, a scholar of Biblical texts, reconciled Christian teaching with tenets of Greek philosophy. Jerome created a Latin version of the Bible. The greatest theologian, perhaps, was Augustine who wrote “The City of God” to explain how God could allow Rome to fall into ruin after the barbarian devastations of Italy and North Africa. He is chiefly responsible for the doctrine of Original Sin.
Christianity was out of favor, if not actively persecuted, during the first three centuries of its existence. As its strength grew, Roman emperors starting in the mid 3rd century A.D. tried to stamp out this threatening religion. Some of the worst persecution came under emperors Diocletian and Galerius. However the situation was about to change.
Galerius, on his death bed, revoked his previous anti-Christian edicts in 411 A.D. and granted freedom of worship. In the following year, Constantine converted to Christianity. Having abandoned their former pacifism, Christians were by now well-represented within the Roman army. Legend has it that Constantine, in a dream, saw two Greek letters representing the name of Christ together with the words “with this sign you will be victorious”. He ordered his soldiers to paint that slogan on their shields. Constantine went on to win a battle against Maxentius, a rival contender for the imperial throne, and then to defeat another rival to gain the supreme power.
After consolidating his political power, Constantine became an active patron of the Christian church. Yet, he also remained loyal to the cult of Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered Sun”) and retained the title of Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of Rome’s civic religion.
Two actions undertaken during his reign were of importance to the church. First, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to decide the matter of Christ’s identity. The formulation worked out in the Nicaean creed - that Jesus was both God and man and a member of the Trinity - became the basis of Christian orthodoxy. Second, Constantine created a second capital city on the Bosporus straights to improve imperial administration. The two capitals at Rome and at Constantinople became the centers of western (Roman Catholic) and eastern (Orthodox) Christendom respectively.
Except for Julian the Apostate, Constantine’s nephew, subsequent Roman emperors continued to favor the Christian religion. Gratian (367-83 A.D.) closed temples of non-Christian religions and seized their property. At Ambrose’s urging, Emperor Theodosius I completed the liquidation of rivals at the end of the 4th century.
Even after the Council of Nicaea, controversies about Jesus’ nature persisted. Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, had questioned the idea that the Virgin Mary could give birth to a divine child. His views were condemned at the Council of Ephesus, convened in 431 A.D. The Christian community at Antioch became deeply divided over this question. Nestorius’ followers first emigrated to Persia and then, as missionaries, went to India, China, and central Asia. Monophysite Christianity, which held that Jesus had a single divine nature, arose in reaction to Nestorianism. Derived from the teachings of Eutyches, this doctrine became popular in Syria, Armenia, Egypt, and Abyssinia. The Council of Chalcedon condemned it as a heresy in 451 A.D. The East Roman emperor invalidated that decision but his successors vacillated. The persecution of Monophysite Christians paved the way for Islam’s quick military victories in Syria and Egypt.
After Christianity became Rome’s state religion, Christians assumed leading positions in Roman society and so became a privileged class. The monastic movement spread in reaction to the increased worldliness of the church. St. Antony, an Egyptian hermit, pioneered this way of life. His ascetic example inspired imitation. A number of other hermits settled around him in the desert. After ignoring them for twenty years, Antony organized these people into a community of monks. In time, monastic life evolved into communities where individuals could live in holiness through simple living, contemplation, and prayer. The self-sacrificing monks gave the church models of personal heroism after the age of martyrdom had passed.
Meanwhile, a church hierarchy was being organized along the lines of the imperial structure. Cities that had been chartered as Roman municipalities became seats of Christian bishoprics. The prefectures of the eastern empire were divided between the patriarchates of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople while the patriarchate of Rome assumed authority over the three prefectures of the western empire.
Technically, the Pope was only Bishop of Rome - leader of the Christian community in Rome. He became leader of the western church by virtue of the apostolic origins of that office. As a spiritual kingdom the Papacy based its authority upon a continuous line of succession running back to Peter. A passage in the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus: “You are Peter, the Rock; and on this rock I will build my church ... I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 16: 18-19)
The eastern church, headquartered in Constantinople, fell outside the realm of papal authority. A church council held in 381 A.D. had decided that the see of Constantinople ranked second after the See of Rome. At the Council of Chalcedon, the Byzantine church was given spiritual authority over western Turkey and the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula.
Since the imperial structure at Constantinople remained in place, political rulers there tended to dominate their religious counterparts following the principle which emperor Justinian I had laid down in the 6th century A.D. that “nothing should happen in the Church against the command or will of the Emperor.” So the eastern church became like a department of religion within the Byzantine government.
However, the Byzantine empire was under a continuing threat from Islam. When the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 A.D., the center of power for Orthodox Christianity shifted from that city to Moscow. Not long afterwards, Roman authority in Europe was challenged by the Protestant Reformation. Today, Christianity with its several divisions and sects remains the world’s largest religious group, followed by Islam.
The book of Revelation
When Jesus died and was resurrected in 30 A.D., it became possible to argue that the Kingdom of God had arrived because Jesus was now in the supernatural form of the promised Messiah. Yet, this experience was unsatisfying because the expected events had not visibly occurred. No one had come down to earth upon the clouds of heaven. No perfect order under God’s control replaced the corrupt world. Under those circumstances, a new set of prophecies emerged that were focused upon what has been called Christ’s “Second Coming”.
Some of the writings about the Second Coming are found in the Gospels where Jesus describes the circumstances of his return. Additionally, Christians continue to look for guidance from prophecies in the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. Christianity has, however, its own book of prophecy in the concluding work of the New Testament: the Revelation of John.
It begins: “This is the revelation given by God to Jesus Christ ... He (Jesus) made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who, in telling all that he saw, has borne witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Revelation 1: 1-3)
John, the author of Revelation, is traditionally believed to be the same man as the author of the Gospel of John and perhaps even John the disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. Modern scholars tend to doubt that. The Book of Revelation was written by a Christian living in exile on the island of Patmos in the Aegean sea. He probably died in the city of Ephesus in present-day Turkey. The Book of Revelation was written around 95 B.C. during persecutions of Christians by the Roman emperor Domitian. The Christian community was then under great pressure to renounce faith in Jesus and worship the emperor.
Some argue that Revelation was merely an “exhortatory” work intended to encourage persecuted Christians to persevere in their faith. The time to which it refers may have been the period of the Roman emperor Nero’s reign, between 54 and 68 A.D. Nero set fire to the city of Rome so he could rebuild it on a grander scale. He then blamed Christians for the fire. Many died in the ensuing persecution. John of Patmos may have written Revelation to let Christians see beyond their immediate troubles to a time of redemption when the Roman empire would end and God’s kingdom would begin. The image of Jesus as a lamb encourages non-violent resistance to pressures to worship the emperor.
Revelation is a Christian prophecy drawing upon imagery and themes of the Old Testament prophets. The symbolic identification of beasts with empires or nations is reminiscent of Daniel. The idea of marking people on their foreheads who are to be saved comes from Ezekiel. The scenario of a period of great persecution followed by a climactic appearance of the Messiah who will defeat the wicked power of earthly rulers and establish a Kingdom of God is patterned after concepts found in several of the prophets.
The Book of Revelation is describing a process that leads to the appearance of the Messianic kingdom which, in this case, lasts for a thousand years. Then Satan returns, another battle is fought, and God’s eternal kingdom is established. The imagery of Revelation is often gruesome. Its symbolism of numbers helps to establish connections with particular persons, kingdoms, or events that can be recognized in history.
This prophecy starts with John’s greeting to seven churches, which are the Christian communities in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. He is sending them Christ’s message which he reads on a scroll. Next, heaven opens up and John sees a throne. One “whose appearance was like the gleam of jasper and cornelian” sits upon this throne, surrounded by twenty-four other thrones and by four beast-like creatures, each with six wings. The One seated on the throne, who is God, has a sealed scroll in his right hand.
A lamb, who is Jesus, “with the marks of slaughter upon him” and having seven horns and seven eyes, takes the scrolls from the one seated on the throne. He breaks the first seal, and the next, and the next, until all seven scrolls have been unsealed. The first four times, he sees a horse - white, red, black, and sickly pale - symbolic of death and destruction. Breaking the fifth seal, he hears the groans of the righteous who have been persecuted. After the sixth seal is broken, violent earthquakes and disorderly occurrences in heaven can be seen. The day of Christ’s vengeance has come.
At this point, an “angel rising from the east” who carries God’s seal calls a halt to the destruction about to be unleashed by four other angels. He instructs these angels to “set the seal of our God upon the foreheads of his servants”, who come from the tribe of Israel. One-hundred forty-four thousand persons receive this mark on their foreheads, twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. A “vast throng”, robed in white, gathers before the throne of God and before the Lamb, praising God. An elder explains to John: “These are the men who have passed through the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Now is the time for the Lamb to break the seventh seal. There is silence in heaven for the next half hour.
When the seventh seal is broken, seven angels prepare to blow their trumpets. A great natural disaster occurs after each trumpet is blown. Heavenly disturbances then take place. When the fifth angel blows his trumpet, smoke rises from an abyss and from the smoke comes a plague of locusts which torment (but do not kill) those persons who do not have the mark of God’s seal on their forehead. When the sixth angel blows his trumpet, a voice instructs this angel: “Release the four angels held bound at the great river Euphrates!” The angels who are released proceed to kill one third of humanity through their “squadrons of cavalry”, numbering two hundred million. Even so, there are many men who continue to worship devils and idols.
Now another angel comes down from heaven holding in his hand a little scroll. John is instructed to take that scroll and eat it. The scroll tastes sweet but it makes his stomach sour. He is next given a measuring rod and asked to measure the Temple, the altar, and the number of worshippers. The Gentiles, in the outer court of the temple, are set to “trample the Holy City underfoot for forty-two months (or twelve hundred and sixty days) while two witnesses dressed in sackcloth, who are protected by the Lord, prophesy.
After this period, a beast comes out of the abyss and kills them. Their two corpses lie unburied on the street for three and a half days. Then God breathes new life into them and they are taken up into heaven. At the same time, a violent earthquake kills seven thousand in the city. God’s temple in heaven is exposed and the ark of the covenant is plainly seen.
Now, for the main event, a pregnant woman appears in heaven. A second portent appears: “a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns” and a diadem on each head. This dragon stands in front of the pregnant woman, waiting to devour her child when it is born. She gives birth to a male child “who is destined to rule all nations with an iron road.” God removes the child to a safe place in heaven while the mother flees into the wilds. She will remain there for the next twelve hundred and sixty days. Meanwhile, a war breaks out in heaven. Michael and his angels defeat the dragon, Satan, and hurl him down to earth. The earth becomes Satan’s stomping ground.
The dragon pursues the mother in the wilds but God allows her to escape. Furious, the dragon next wages war against ‘the rest of her offspring”, Christ’s followers. Now a great beast with ten horns and seven heads rises from the sea. The dragon confers its power and authority upon this creature. The beast resembles a leopard but its feet are like a bear’s and its mouth like a lion’s. Its mouth speaks bombast and blasphemy. The beast is allowed to reign for forty-two months as it wages war against God’s people. A mortal wound, which seems to have healed, is on one of its seven heads. Men worship both the dragon and the beast.
Then still another beast comes out of the earth: “it had two horns like a lamb’s, but spoke like a dragon.” Wielding its authority, this second beast persuades men to worship the first beast by performing miracles. A statue of the first beast is erected for men to worship. Those who refuse to worship the beast are put to death. There is a regulation that individuals need to have the mark of the (first) beast on their foreheads or right hand in order to buy or sell merchandise. The mark can be either the beast’s name or number. Its number is six-hundred sixty-six.
Meanwhile, the Lamb stands on Mount Zion along with the one-hundred and forty-four thousand who had God’s name written in their foreheads. These are virgin men. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes and sing a new song that is difficult to learn. An angel flies through heaven urging men to fear God; for the judgment has come. A second angel announces that Babylon the great has fallen, she who made the nations drink the wine of her fornication. Then a third angel cries that who who worship the beast or bear his mark on their forehead or hand will incur the wrath of God. Happily, the dead will be spared of this punishment.
Now one like a Son of Man sits on a white cloud. He wears a crown of gold and holds a sickle in his hand. An angel urges him to pass his sickle across the earth and reap the grape-like harvest for God’s wine press of wrath. Another portent appears in heaven: Seven angels with seven plagues consummate the wrath of God. Those who have won a victory over the beast and his name are holding harps and singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb. Afterwards, the sanctuary of the heavenly tent of Testimony is thrown open. Out come the seven angels with seven plagues. A voice instructs the angels: “Go and pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”
So the seven angels in succession pour out their bowls, turning the earth’s waters to blood. Those who bear the beast’s mark develop sores on their body. The fourth and fifth bowls burn men with flames or plunge the beast’s kingdom into darkness. The sixth angel pours his bowl upon the Euphrates river, causing it to dry up and preparing the way for the kings from the east. Then from the mouths of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet (the second beast) three foul spirits come forth, which are devils with the power to work miracles. They are sent to enlist the support of the earth’s kings to do battle against God. The kings are assembled in a place called Armageddon.
When the seventh angel pours out his bowl, a voice from heaven cries: “It is over.” Immediately, there are flashes of lightning, an earthquake, and a hail storm of unprecedented severity. The great city (Jerusalem) is split in three. Other cities, including Babylon, lie in ruins. Then one of the angels that had held a bowl offers to show John what will be the judgment visited on “the great whore, enthroned above the ocean.” This woman is seated on a scarlet beast which is covered with blasphemous names and has seven heads and ten horns. She is clothed in purple and wears much jewelry. On her forehead is written: “Babylon the great, the mother of whores.” She is drunk with the blood of God’s people and those loyal to Jesus.
The angel informs John that this beast with seven heads and ten horns is no longer alive. The angel says: “The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They represent also seven kings, of whom five have already fallen, one is now reigning, and the other has yet to come.” The beast who was once alive is one of the seven kings doomed for perdition.
The ten horns are ten kings whose reigns have not yet begun. They will share royal authority with the beast for one hour; their purpose is to confer their power and authority on the beast. When they wage war on the Lamb, the Lamb will defeat them. The ocean where the great whore sat is the sea of humanity. The ten horns, future kings, will come to hate the whore, strip her naked, and burn her to ashes. “The woman you saw is the great city that holds sway over the kings of the earth,” Revelation says.
An angel cries out that Babylon the great has fallen. All people should abandon her. The merchants who profited from her commerce may weep for this woman, but heaven will rejoice in her demise. Hurling a large stone into the sea, an angel says: “Thus shall Babylon, the great city, be sent hurtling down, never to be seen again!” Her sorcery has deceived the nations. “For the blood of the prophets and of God’s people was found in her, the blood of all who had been done to death on earth.”
The heavenly throng rejoice that God is entering his reign. Happy are those invited to the wedding-supper of the Lamb. Then the heavens open and a white horse is seen. Its rider, whose name is Faithful and True, wears diadems on his head and wears a garment drenched in blood. He is the Word of God, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” A sharp sword projects from his mouth to smite the nations. Then an angels tells birds in the skies to “gather for God’s great supper”, which means that they are to feast upon the kings and their horde who are opposing God.
“Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies mustered to do battle with the Rider and his army. The beast was taken prisoner, and so was the false prophet ... The two of them were thrown alive into the lake of fire with its sulfurous flames. The rest were killed by the sword which sent out of the Rider’s mouth; and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.” (Revelation 19: 19-21)
Next an angel comes down from heaven to seize the dragon, Satan, who is put in chains and locked away for one thousand years so that he can seduce the nations no more. After the thousand years, however, he must again be set loose for a time. Now the souls of those beheaded for Jesus’ sake and those others who have died refusing to worship the beast spring back to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years. The rest have to wait until after his millennial reign is over. This is the first resurrection.
Afterwards, Satan is loosed from his dungeon. He again seduces the nations and musters them for battle against God’s people. They include the “hosts of Gog and Magog” who lay siege to Jerusalem. But fire comes down upon them from heaven and they are destroyed. Satan is flung into the same fiery lake where the beast and false prophet have been, suffering eternal punishment.
After this event, John sees a great white throne and God seated upon it. Heaven and earth have passed away. The dead are standing before the throne, awaiting judgment. Another book is opened, and the dead are judged according to their deeds. Death and Hades give up their dead until they, too, are thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death. All whose names are not recorded in the roll of the living are flung into the fiery lake.
Now a new heaven and earth arise. There is a new Jerusalem. God at last dwells among his own people. All evil doers have passed away, flung into the fiery lake. An angel shows John the bride of the Lamb, which is the holy city of Jerusalem. There are twelve gates, twelve angels, twelve apostles, twelve tribes of Israel. The city is made of jewels and precious metals. There is no temple since God and the Lamb rule directly. There is no falseness or filth, and there will no no night. The water of life flowing from the throne of God runs down the middle of the city’s street.
Matching events foretold in Revelation with a time of fulfillment
To relate this strange tale to historical events, we run into a problem with symbols. For example, Revelation mentions “Babylon the great”, a city which is here represented as a whoring woman. There once was a great city called Babylon on the Euphrates river in present-day Iraq. It was the capital of the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzar. The Persians conquered the Babylonian empire and the Greeks conquered Persia. Much of Babylon’s population was removed to the city of Seleucia around 275 B.C.
No doubt the city of Babylon retained its reputation as a rich but corrupt place in the Jewish consciousness, dating back to memories of the Babylonian captivity. As a real city, however, it had lost much of its power and wealth by the Christian era. It seems therefore more likely that the city of Rome would be cast symbolically as “Babylon the great”. At the time the Book of Revelation was written, Rome was the center of political power in the western world. It was also a place of much commerce.
When the angel said in the 17th chapter of Revelation that the woman - the whore who is Babylon - sits on seven hills, one is reminded of Rome’s seven hills. The reference in the same chapter to “the great whore, enthroned above the ocean” reminds one of Rome’s location near the west coast of Italy whose peninsula lies in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. Certainly the Christians experienced severe persecution in Rome so that the statement that this woman, “Babylon”, was “drunk with the blood of God’s people” was apt.
The Book of Revelation mentions a great battle between the forces of good and evil in the period leading up to the establishment of the Messianic kingdom. The Lamb, who is the rider on the white horse leading God’s army to victory, is Jesus Christ, now the risen Messiah. The dragon is clearly identified as Satan, chief angel of evil, who is the same as “that serpent of old that led the whole world astray.” (Revelation 12: 9) The Lamb, Satan, and, of course, God Himself are timeless beings who could enter history at any point in time. Most speculation centers upon the other two figures of evil: the first beast, usually called “the beast”; and the second beast who had “two horns like a lamb’s, but spoke like a dragon.” This second beast is also called “the false prophet.”
The first beast, who is the anti-Christ, is introduced in the 13th chapter of Revelation as a creature rising out of the sea which had “ten horns and seven heads. On its horns were ten diadems, and on each head a blasphemous name.” One of the heads appeared to have sustained a mortal wound that had healed. The beast itself resembled a leopard, but it also had feet like a bear and a mouth like a lion. It was allowed to reign over the world for forty-two months. There was an image (or statue) erected of this beast which people were required to worship; and those who refused were put to death. Also, everyone who wanted to buy or sell in the marketplace had to display the beast’s mark, either name or number, on his right hand or forehead. The number of this beast, representing his name, was six hundred and sixty-six (as determined by Gematria, an ancient technique of associating alphabetic letters with numbers).
Another clue would be that this beast, the Anti-Christ, had ten horns and seven heads, and a diadem, or crown, on each horn. Such imagery is consistent with words in the Book of Daniel, describing political empires. The empire would be a political organization encompassing ten separate kingdoms. Diadems suggest kingdoms, or, in contemporary parlance, nations.
In our own time, the European common market and the European Union have attracted prophetic attention. Some suspect the United Nations since Revelation says the beast will rule the entire world. However, political entities involving the nations of Europe are preferred candidates for the beast since they imply the resurrection of imperial Rome. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 convinces some that the ancient prophecies in Revelation and elsewhere remain relevant in our time.
Many today believe that the Book of Revelation describes events that have not yet happened. They are still waiting for Jesus, the Messiah, to return to earth in power and glory. A Time-CNN poll taken in 2002 found that 59% of Americans believe that the prophecies told in Revelation will come true. If this book of prophecy merely described the situation in Nero’s or Domitian’s Rome, few would still be interested in it. Clearly the appeal of Revelation lies in the belief that John is presenting a scenario of events in our own time or in a time shortly to come. The symbolism found in his work comes alive in resemblances to historical events happening before our eyes.
Appendix: Some poetry written in the 20th century with the aid of Gematria
Francis Gurney Okie invented the first hugely successful commercial product sold by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, wet-or-dry sandpaper. It has been called the “acorn” from which this multi-billion-dollar corporate “oak” developed. The ability to sand a metal or wood surface under a stream of running water in manufacturing processes cut down on dust in the air which, in turn, greatly reduced cases of the lung disease known as silicosis.
Francis Okie retired from the company in the 1930s. He spent most of his remaining years writing religious poetry. This practice, which lasted for more than thirty years, began when Okie had a vision of a fiery cannon ball. Adolf Hitler had just come to power in Germany and speculations were rife concerning the Anti-Christ.
Each day Okie in tweed jacket would sit at a table with pads of yellow paper testing proposed verses through a mathematical discipline known as Gematria. It is based on an ancient, mystical equation of numbers with alphabetic letters in words in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets. Okie's English-language verses each had to add up to a certain number or he would not use them. His particular number was 869 - which matched the numerical count of the phrase "He that hath understanding" in Revelation 13:18.
These are poems of Francis G. Okie:
A HIGH metaphysical
Millennium is here
And another cycle.
A beginning and end of people
Sudden coming death
and life resurgence
and high recrudescence
In the spirit,
And a being not ourselves
Which is the ancient of days.
THE BEING wakes us of a morn
Saying, listen and apprehend
What parable brings to mind
In the language of numbers,
God’s language of symbolism.
Here is the Father counting
In the spirit counting
Singled out in grace, I AM THAT I AM,
In all time and space and matter hid,
Saith the Lord of Hosts.
Pursuing the sky,
Giving names to stars,
I am all in all; I am Alpha and Omega for
I am a beginning and end.
BACK THE HOUR is struck
To our pristine era.
From that original dark void
The stimulating sun
Measures the full oceans.
And the mysteries of night alike
Cause the methodic hours.
And the minutes and seconds
For the day and morrow.
Arithmetic from the clock of ages
And grace notwithstanding,
BACK FROM the sun’s bright beam
Pregnant in her single action
The pale moon wills the tide.
The waves of words
Their music lit within
Articulate their essence
Pouring balm upon us.
Images in crests and trough
Another and another speaks
And to the sky’s refrain
Rising and falling and rising and falling again.
AS ONOMATOPOEIA’S accents
Color the light of the sun
And the bowstring shining
And the keystone of the arch
And the very first man,
Weaving a pattern planned
Threading aeons, ages, years,
In liquid syllables of light
And crystallizing sand,
Molding the sapphire throne,
Strewing him stars,
No dearth in guidance hinders long
Earth’s ray inviolate.
All this and more at revelation’s hour
Waits upon motion
And alphabetic relativity.
By SIX, six, six
In sighs and portents die
Named of a grand cycle of the sky
God’s revelation from on high
Is in language of the stars.
The son’s science of phonetic
Is arithmetic in rhythm.
The decibels of sound united,
Aid ghostly strength,
And the esoteric echo of the doom,
Is in language of the stars.
WHEN UPON the great circle
The just master bends his universal mathematic
Tendered in that semantics
Whose coaxial scale is light,
Superseding language comes
The spiritual dimension.
CONSIDER THE images of the night,
The mystifying cipher
That begets the hours,
Shining a faith in things to come,
In the tides of the final things,
The light that seeks action,
The need which evokes the law
Reflections from the emblems,
Pulsations of the flood,
Ere time was, I AM, in power.
And has any other made a sky?
TIME AND PLACE together and the goal
Mark at the wheel’s full circle
The stars’ grand climacteric
Relating to divine event,
Off his scroll of heaven’s book
Who reads by indirection,
Meditating on the stars
How symbols might become
The instruments of grace,
Reminiscent of tongues
In memory’s deep concerns,
In a rhythmic alphabet diffused,
From which all languages derive.
AS NUMERAL and sacred word
In his belief conjointly spell
The supreme criterion that best defines Jesus,
Long in the sky of Chaldean learning,
Carried from the past to be,
Unto Greek and Hebrew song,
Lingual felicity’s basic key,
Line by line and link by link in cipher,
Punctuating light and fire
To the miracle of tongues,
The fabric of our counting.
THESE WORD GROUPS that run on and on aright
Are numbers and are all alike
Spatially conceived, each and all final,
Under earth and sea and sky,
Under the smitten rock.
IN ALPHABETICAL chains of thought,
A cadence upon the pillar of a cloud,
Comes the same which led Moses,
A testimony old and new
Nourished and kept alive
In a parable faithful and true,
The alphabet wherein a book is hid
Is in language of the stars,
Lighting from Genesis to John
The faith of a consecrated earth,
In characters of clay united
Teaching the earth a knowledge of God.
SHALL NO MAN read the little book
Bearing witness to good,
Nor wake his fatal inner light
Before the holy trump
Gird back the blessing of his sight?
Is the loom of language lost?
Read on, thou child of measure.
IF YE WOULD read the emblems
If ye would read the dragon
And if you would read the danger,
As feeling a thing before it happens,
Search the high scripture
By the pole star’s light,
Read, through the aid of Gematria
Dream, beside the spring of dove,
And the emblem of the eagle in the sky.
And to search history
Take the pen and write from
Motion and an empty space,
Aloof from the world, the echo
Whence comes the Lord Messiah.
ERE SAINT or any image speak
Before a wheel with spokes
Spins out the parallel,
Behind the face no man dare see, burns
Earth’s ray inviolate.
BY LIGHT A lightning chain is born
From the voice of thunder,
Light from the integer of light
By integrant of motion,
Poised and counterpoised,
Positive kindling negative,
Negative kindling positive,
Fathering the radiant ooze
FOR IN THE good garden of the Lord
A man in robes of light arrayed,
Under the tree of knowledge,
Nature and spirit meet,
And where lake and river join,
Father, Son, and spirit grace
The divine expression.
HERE IN THE fair harmonies of time
And light through ages sifted,
Bides the essential spring,
In stem and leaf and flower,
The divine metronome of hope,
Which is a high immortality,
Thy living waters.
BY A SPIRIT stirred,
Now is Adam made a living soul
And in the book of life, together
Unto the man and his helpmeet,
Has the Father reared an edifice of light
To measure truth
To measure destiny
And to measure the sun.
MINDING THE NATURE of the Book,
In the hand of the angel serving God,
In John’s great Revelation,
Ever mindful of Boanerges’ aid
And conscious of the dreams
Where through the cipher
He institutes his grace,
Into divination’s thread,
Against God’s fervent heat
Objects coupled and inseparable
Echo things burning to be said.
IN HIS STARLIT cosmos
Within his church in Philadelphia,
And to his seven churches
Foremost in their parallel,
John burns the little candle,
Sublime through faith alone,
And reads the seven stars
In the harmonies of spheres.
Through a cosmic vista
Rises a mystic church,
A light alight to light she fares,
The silent word reflected,
The silent holy word
HE THAT HATH the love of the Lamb
Who draws this parable
In parable he issues forth,
St. John the Divine speaking,
Ideal his melody of silence sings,
Ideal the gateway of the Lord.
Gentle John of Patmos ancient,
Blessed aid in quiet waiting,
He knows a language of creation
Of the rhythmics of the Lamb.
Here is a door opened and a key
To the miracle of tongues,
A long forgotten wisdom
Once a searchlight of the soul,
So in signs and wonders,
John shows the way.
IN JOHN’S great Revelation
Is a revelation sealed in cipher,
Cipher is mystery,
The image is mystery
And on the pallid cipher hangs the mind
To clothe in words a demon
Written of the signs.
It is high time in humility
To think with relation
To thy words, John,
Foretelling this darkness
Which besets the Master.
At revelation’s hour,
A Book and a code of bitter taste
And the precept of a golden rule,
The Book of a divine solicitude
Written of the signs.
Searching the heart, this Book
Must needs be rhythmic
Relating things to action
Concordant with a sky.
Presently this Book,
Personalized in the wind,
Waits upon motion
And alphabetical relativity.
HE THAT IS the event of it,
He binds with the bonds of it,
Substance and a blessed form,
To presuppose it
And put it to test
And use it in the parable of the Babe.
And as ye watch and pray
As if while yet ye may
By God’s grace avert night,
Charged with fresh power,
A cause illuminates the Book,
A mean reconciling faith with science.
MY BELOVED SON is right
Saith the Spirit of Light,
Than Eden’s time, light, force amplified
Since Him there is none other
Named our Lord and Savior.
WHEN THE QUESTION is
Which is fact and which is fancy
Or when fact and fancy disagree,
Beware the voice of fact
Speaking more than he knows.
What images the mind rejects
A mystic word affirms.
Fancy runs in verse
Counting the word elect
And spins it out a cipher.
What parable brings to mind
The fatal code devours
And spins it out a cipher
In the harmony of spheres.
THE SYMBOLS write
Impromptu, and the emblems
Comprehensive past belief, echo
A voice ye wot not of.
So being, the solar tongue
Spins out the parallel
And tersely tells the man
His prospering way.
WHEN THE PRINCE of Darkness,
In a sky of arc and sine and chord,
At her point of zero,
Right angles from the meridian and back,
A B C and 1 2 3 make parallel straight lines;
The Prince of the tempest
And the chaos of the tempest
To rhythmic balance tuned.
WE ARE A JOB walking in darkness
While we do walk beside Satan
Drunk with his power,
Babel reiterates the past.
Counting the paradise lost
Thou seest the beast,
The creature of an evil mark
Coming a thousand years
In decadence to desecrate the earth.
The dragon is a hunter of men,
The black angel of destruction
Encompasses the great earth
In the apocalypse of war.
HELL SHAKES the earth today
From the voice of thunder
Caesar makes hideous the night
Lucifer tilts the skies.
Apollyon is put aside
And he grieves in the abyss
Sunk where his love is.
“ In the Hebrew tongue Abaddon,
Apollyon turns again.”
IN THE PRINCE of the Lemming people
Vengeance takes his turn.
The Prince of the tempest,
The Prince, epitome of evils,
A counterfeit of Jesus,
Minted in coin of dross, abominable,
Vies against the world.
In his fatal footprints
“As breath to each other,”
Says a scripture,
The second beast follows.
WICKED IN THE ARENA of the sky
In the eye of Taurus,
Thou seest a beast
Kindling the great red star.
A demon the same of a different name,
A name and a killer with a sword
Shake men’s foundations.
For it is the iron messiah
The enigma of authority,
Master for a little while,
And the bear that walks as a man,
And the red star of the dragon
Of the dance of destruction,
Written of the signs.
HE THAT HATH understanding,
He sees the die in his own forehead,
The creature of an evil self.
He sees the great red star
The scythe of the reaper,
The horns of the bull.
Bitter to take is death’s
Self-made divinity of war.
ABIDE THOU READER of the signs!
Blessed is he who readeth to
Disclose the false prophet.
Blessed is he that waiteth
By the faith in the vision
To amplify the saints;
Thy vision is Earth.
A part of us we sing,
The while another weeps.
Multiply power and
Their course is run
Awhile unaccountable to God,
In a finger writing in the sand,
A Babel written on the wall
Like image patterns in the sand,
He spells them out to die
And a pattern in the sand is all.
HE THAT HATH understanding,
After the earthquake’s menace
While again the earth trembles,
Let him read by his spirit
So as before God let him find his ark,
His spirit ark of saving,
In the still, small voice in man.
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