TMOC 6: Messianic Expectations
(I debated including this, so I’d like some feedback as to whether my readers think it matters.)
We simply cannot hope to understand some of the events and conversations in the Gospels without realizing just what the Jews had in mind regarding the Messiah.
As with all Scripture text, we often run astray because we aren’t acquainted with the large pool of background information the writers assumed was common knowledge among their readers. It becomes the task of Bible scholars to fill in this really large blank spot, and their success is mixed. As if we don’t have trouble enough with virtually the whole of Western Christianity ignoring the unique Hebrew intellectual assumptions, virtually every sectarian division can be traced in part to a measure of ignorance regarding the much more accessible social and historical context of the Bible times. Between overly literal readings and lack of context, we should hardly be surprised at the vast hoard of heresies and plain silliness embraced by so many who claim to follow Christ.
A critical element in the Gospel accounts is the often unexplained assumptions the Hebrew people had regarding the Messiah, along with the political instability stirred by these expectations.
We pick up the thread with the fundamental error of Israel first noted by the early prophetic writings. There was this huge pool of pride, even arrogance, at being The Chosen People. Instead of the humble gratefulness we might expect, and the resulting noble burden of responsibility, we see this racist hatred for anyone who was “uncircumcised,” as if they were somehow unbearably filthy. While the Law often seems to use such language, the intent was to make Israel cautious about mixing inappropriately, and protecting their tribal cohesion. The exclusionary impulse itself is proper and right, but the spiteful attitude was not. Moses bluntly pointed out their national identity was in the Covenant faithfulness, not in their DNA. And while it’s not universal, the presence of this unjustified arrogance is strong enough to be a major issue very early in the nation’s history.
Along with this was an early tendency to what can only be called a subtle form of blasphemy — reducing the reverence and respect due their God. That could be a matter of elevating others to His unique position, suggesting He wasn’t as high and holy as He claimed (same as all the other gods), or simply depersonalizing Him. Among the various expressions of this was the silly notion God was held hostage to protecting Zion because His Temple was there, “His House.” This gave rise to the tendency to be less than scrupulous and sincere in ritual observances, and even idolatry, because something in the popular subconscious told them they could get away with it.
The prophets pointed out these flaws often enough, but even when taken seriously by those who heard, it didn’t seem to last long. They had no trouble remembering all the great and mighty miracles God performed on their behalf, but they kept forgetting those things were for His glory, not theirs. When the Assyrians were dispatched by a plague in the siege camp, limping home to Nineveh only to be wiped out there by the rebellious Babylonians, this set the stage for insufferable folly. And while the prophets foresaw this last period as the final unforgivable insult to God, the Babylonian assault still came as a shock. God did not save them, and the Davidic Dynasty was removed.
When, almost a century later, some tiny remnant returned, they bore the imprint of two very powerful negative influences. The Babylonian and Persian Empires brought a one-two cultural punch to the Hebrew intellectual assumptions about things in general. While the Jews never again slipped into open idolatry, the very attitude which prevented it gave rise to a much more subtle idolatry of political power and worship of wealth. They had a very weak hold on the moral imperatives which were the reason for fastidious observance of rituals and laws. The small remnant returning to rebuild Jerusalem was already crippled by this subtle influence, and the ease with which they became dissatisfied by the failure to regain their former worldly glory in that part of the world set them up for all sorts of huge mistakes.
In their prophetic library at the time was a long thread of promises to restore the monarchy under an heir of David. While there was, of course, a literal implication for this, the real meaning was symbolic, which they tended to ignore in favor of a literal expectation. They wanted the goods without having to pay the moral price, which was simply impossible. So when the Restoration disappointed them, and there weren’t any miraculous bailouts for all that work, they began dwelling on all those promises some anointed figure (“Messiah”) would arise to set things right. They went back through the prophecies combing for the nuggets of Messianic Promise. The final blow was the Hellenist influences, by which the mere trappings of obedience became their god.
Along with that overly literal expectation of a Messiah was a host of things He was supposed to bring with Him. The literature is expansive, but we can sum it up as all the wealth of the world, an endless supply of food provided by miracles if needed, and complete global domination of the entire human race. This Messiah would manifest spectacular miraculous powers over nature and all His enemies, and bring by force if necessary, the Covenant Peace (“shalom”). He would elevate His People over all the world as benefactors to which everyone would fervently cling.
So now you can understand what Satan was trying to do with the Wilderness Temptations. He was attempting to get Jesus to accept those expectations, to embrace the role already laid out for Him by the Jewish scholars. It would be so easy. Jesus knew better, because by that time, He knew He was supposed to fight this very thing, die a senseless death, and reclaim His real heritage in the Spirit Realm. Sure, He was the lawful heir to David’s throne, and could easily do all those things the Jews expected, but that was simply a formality, a sign of deeper truth. Miracles do not come based on need, but use human need as the basis for drawing attention to the underlying moral imperatives which drive God’s miraculous support for His people. Jesus was about to change the meaning of “His People” to what it was meant to be in the first place: those who cling to Him in purity of moral commitment.
He understood fully He was the sacrificial Lamb of God, opening the way to all humanity into God’s Courts, and all the verbiage about the Messiah was more symbolic than literal.
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