“Daniel is [...] told, that, after the seventy years of the captivity, seventy times seven must elapse, and that even then Messiah would not come in glory as the Jews might through misunderstanding expect from the earlier prophets, but by dying would put away sin.”
With the arrival of Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited freedom from captivity was imminent — or was it? They expected the Messiah to free them from Rome. What they needed was freedom from self. Where did this misunderstanding come from?
Israel in the First Century
Israel’s predicament was this: They were captives to the Roman Empire. Their history reveals a pattern of oppression, exile, and victory over assorted enemies from the very beginning of their timeline. “The Old Testament contains over 300 prophecies about a future Messiah, a savior anointed by God to deliver His people from oppression,” wrote Dolores Smyth.
These oppressors were external and internal. A basic outline of the Bible highlights treachery starting with Adam and Eve in the Garden, moves into families, and grows into Israel’s rebellion against God as a nation.
They were conquered by other countries (Assyria, Egypt), and subjected to oppression by their own religious leaders. The Pharisees, declared Jesus, “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4).
“By the time of Jesus, Israel was generally considered a backwater Roman province full of cantankerous people with strange religious beliefs. The Jews had very little autonomy, though they clung to their religion and customs,” according to Alyssa Roat.
Some became citizens of Rome (Paul for example), but Jewish leaders still came under Roman authority to decide how much religious freedom Israel would be permitted to exercise.
Beyond religious and political autonomy, Israel also hated the economic imposition of belonging to Rome. “The Jews particularly saw Roman taxes as a tribute to a god they hated (Caesars were all declared gods) and as a symbol of their slavery to Rome.”
The Jews focused on the oppression inherent to their current circumstances. They wanted to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to make Israel a great and free nation, but sin repeatedly got in the way.
The Promised Land
God’s people had a long memory. The Lord had instituted the Passover as a way of remembering his deliverance from Egypt. Israel would never forget how Almighty God had opened the Red Sea for them ahead of Pharaoh’s chariots, a supernatural defeat of a concrete enemy.
The Jews also knew from prophecy that a Messiah would come, but they pictured him as a warrior who would crush a visible enemy.
King Herod, who ruled Judea under the Romans, clearly understood that the Messiah the Jews expected was to be another king and thus a rival to himself. [...] Herod and the Jewish rulers considered the title “Christ” as synonymous with that of “King of the Jews” in accordance with the general expectation of the time.
One reason for this expectation was that prophecy told them Jesus would be descended from King David. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). The Messiah would be descended from the most famous warrior king of Israel’s history, one who with a single stone that slayed Goliath.
Hope of Israel
Our God is able to do more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). All that his people could imagine during the rule of Rome was that a great warrior king would emerge. “They were hoping for the prophesied One who would restore the kingdom of Israel under the Davidic dynasty.”
Jesus himself appeared to be preparing the early stages of an uprising. His following was, at times, quite large, although the people abandoned Jesus when he no longer provided bread or performed miracles.
Sometimes Jesus really did sound like an anarchist. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). Was he going to lead Israel into battle and cause them to usurp Rome’s power over the Jews and much of the known world?
Israel’s focus on receiving a new promised land caused God’s people to forget some of the key elements of Passover and the ways these connected with prophecy to foreshadow a true deliverance and a better Kingdom. What they imagined was short-sighted.
Key Elements of Prophecy
When Jesus arrived, God’s purpose was not to save his nation so they could disobey him again and fall into slavery once more. He wanted them to be saved for all time from their biggest enemy — sin.
Benjamin Vrbicek wrote: “The whole of Scripture teaches that the greatest enemy to God’s people is internal” and “we deeply resist this teaching.” There were clues all throughout Scripture.
For example, immediately before crossing the Red Sea where God crushed Israel’s enemies, the Lord commanded that the Jews paint lambs’s blood on the doors of their houses so that God’s angel of death would not take their firstborn sons when he killed those of the Egyptians.
Jewish homes were passed over. “Without Christ, the Father looks upon the world He made and sees only a mass of corrupt sinners who are wholly deserving of His wrath.”
All who submit to being covered by the blood of Christ are, like the Jewish children, being passed over; saved from God’s wrath which they deserved because of their sin. The Messiah’s purpose is foreshadowed in the Passover — to become a blood offering for our trespass.
Isaiah 53 also undermines a militaristic expectation. “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (v.5).
The Psalmist suggests that Rome was not the problem, “for it is not an enemy who taunts me — then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me — then I could hide from him” (Psalm 55:12). This writer speaks of treachery by a friend, but he also refers to an enemy he could not hide from. Sin is the internal antagonist one cannot evade.
Prophecy indicates that the Messiah would not appear to have won the battle at first. “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; hid not my face from disgrace and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6). The Messiah would be betrayed by one close to him and would take our gruesome punishment.
He would still fight, but the Messiah’s weapons would be the Father’s words. “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4).
Jesus would use Scripture as his defense against Satan in the wilderness. He would give us his Word as a defense against Satan and our own sin.
Jesus would even speak peace to the thief on the cross next to him, a weary sinner who by faith recognized (even as they were both crucified) that here was the Savior of the world. The thief knew this, even while the other crucified man cried out “are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39).
Come to Save All
Another problem with Israel’s expectation was that they anticipated a victory for themselves alone. Their preoccupation with the enemy clouded their understanding that every person was an enemy to God.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death (Colossians 1:21-22).
In the long run, Israel’s religious leaders misunderstood the prophecies and Jesus’ own sayings. They failed to see why Jesus came or to recognize the wider scope of this new covenant.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51).
John 3:16 promises salvation to “the world,” to “whoever would believe in him.” He offered eternal restoration, not of a nation’s power, but of relationship between himself and his image-bearers.
The Jews understood the “world” in terms of their nation. Yet, Scripture affirms that “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord [...] these I will bring to my holy mountain [...] for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
God’s Merciful Plan
Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, where they had originally enjoyed a natural and sinless relationship with the Father. But the Lord did this to protect his people from becoming immortal before the effects of their sin were paid for in full by Christ.
The Lord’s plan was always to provide his image-bearers a way back to him. When we sin, we strive to be monarchs of our own kingdoms. But there is only one worthy kingdom and One True God able to rule it perfectly.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.
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