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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.

Mainstream 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.

Joshua Vis

Joshua Vis serves as the Church Engagement Facilitator for Israel/Palestine with the Reformed Church in America.

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I agree that Jesus was articulating an unprecedented idea. And I think it’s great to ask these questions and notice these disparities of expectations. But I can think of any number of sources who demonstrate how Jesus integrated the message of the coming kingdom of God with his insistence that he must suffer, die, and rise again.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I mean scholars, like Ridderbos and NT Wright.

    • Joshua Vis says:

      Ok, right. I understand that Christian scholars certainly want to find a way to put them together. My point is that Jesus, as depicted in the synoptic gospels, does not do so. And though I don’t know Ridderbos, I do know Wright’s work. And though I find Wright’s work helpful in places, I find it to be highly apologetic. Wright thinks he can make it all work (no one can, in my opinion), but I don’t find his “Jesus as Israel” compelling, at least not on the issue of death and resurrection. I see Jesus doing some symbolic things in anticipation of coming kingdom that doesn’t come. That’s an uncomfortable but quite straightforward reading. The disciples and Paul have to do the work of making the death and resurrection message fit with the coming kingdom message and I don’t see that they do so in a compelling way.

  • Dave Stravers says:

    No Old Testament prophecy regarding a suffering Messiah? What about the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah?

    • Joshua Vis says:

      It’s not about a messiah. It doesn’t mention resurrection. Much if it is in the past tense. Also, the gospels don’t quote this passage much, maybe one time. If it’s such a perfect passage for Jesus, why isn’t it all over the NT?

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