By Joshua Vis
Jesus began his ministry with a message about the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth.
God was going to break into the world in a miraculous fashion and defeat all the forces of evil, both natural (like Rome) and supernatural (like Satan and his demons). This intervention was imminent and would change the entire world. The proper response to this good news was to radically change your life (i.e. Repent!) so that you would be included in God’s good and just kingdom.
Jesus demonstrated his legitimacy as the messenger and future ruler of God’s coming kingdom through his teachings and his miracles. All of this was clear to Jesus’s followers and even to those who didn’t agree with his message.
The idea that God would intervene to redeem Israel and bring the entire world under his control was not a fringe idea. It was a mainstream idea within Judaism in the time of Jesus. (FYI: I contend that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more representative of Jesus’s message and ministry than John is.)
Most Jews also believed that after God had taken control, the dead would be raised and God would judge them and the living. Some would be judged positively and be a part of God’s earthly kingdom and some would be judged negatively and be punished or eradicated.
Again, resurrection and judgment were not fringe ideas. These were widely understood and held by the Jews alive when Jesus carried out his ministry. It was this message, along with the confirmation of its truth, mainly through miracles, that attracted people to Jesus.
It seems as though the poor and downtrodden were especially attracted to Jesus’s message because he was indicating that God’s kingdom would be just and fair. The poor, the weak, the sick, the oppressed, the marginalized would be just as important (maybe even more important) as the rich and powerful in God’s kingdom. Jesus proved this by spending a good deal of time with regular people and by healing the sick and the broken. All of Jesus’s followers were on board with this vision.
A Change of Message
Somewhere along the line, Jesus began to articulate another message. This is the message that now dominates Christian theology. Jesus said that he was going to suffer, die, and rise from the dead.
This made no sense to any of his followers or to any other Jewish person of the first century. Jesus’s followers were right to be baffled by this message. There was no precedent for this neither in Jewish tradition, nor in the sacred texts of Judaism.
That’s right, a messiah who suffers, dies, and rises from the dead is not an Old Testament idea. There is not a single text that speaks of a messiah that will suffer, die, and rise again. Not one. And if you want to add the idea that this messiah is also divine, equal in stature and substance to the God of the universe, well then you are truly on untrodden ground.
Not only is it true that Jesus’s followers never understood or believed Jesus when he said that his messianic blueprint would include suffering, death, and resurrection; it is equally true that they were entirely justified in their disbelief. Jesus was articulating an unprecedented idea.
What’s more, Jesus never clearly integrated the message of the coming kingdom of God with his insistence that he must suffer, die, and rise again. I still don’t understand how these things go together.
All of this brings me to Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem at the end of his life. Next Sunday, “Palm Sunday,” I’ll explore why all of this background makes Jesus’s orchestration of the “triumphal entry” so baffling.