(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense.)
Over the last two weeks we worked our way through Israel’s defining story – quickly at first, and then slowing down as we approached the time at which Jesus was about to enter the narrative. We concluded on Friday with a summary of the story as it stands in the closing years of the first century BC:
God’s image-bearers are still in exile, despite being back in the promised land. They were looking forward to a time when the exile would truly be over and all of God’s promises would be fulfilled – a time when they’d be able to bear God’s image the way he always intended.
This week, we change gear to look at how Jesus fits into the story: how he presented his message and ministry as the fulfilment of Israel’s hope – the logical next chapter in the story – as well as how he corrected and challenged some of their expectations as to how that would happen. We start today with how Jesus announced the end of Israel’s exile and the coming reign of God.
Jesus in the wilderness
Before Jesus begins his ministry, he’s baptised in the Jordan river and led out into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Why? Is it a weird form of spiritual retreat? Or an SAS-style selection course to sharpen his skills and prove he’s ready for battle?
No, it’s just part of what Jesus has been doing so far: reenacting the key scenes in Israel’s story. So far he’s been born as God’s son (a term used in the OT for Israel), been rescued “out of Egypt” from the danger he was in as an infant, and been baptised in a river (just like Israel being “baptised” as God brought them across the Red Sea and set them apart as his people, see 1 Cor 10:1-2). Now he’s in the desert, enduring the same temptations Israel did – but resisting them, rather than failing them:
- He trusts God to provide for him, rather than grumbling like Israel did.
- He refuses to put God to the test, rather than constantly “testing” God, as Israel is described in Exodus.
- He rejects idolatry and worships only God, rather than being tempted by the Canaanite gods.
So we see, here, Jesus fulfilling the role of God’s “son” – his representative to the world – that Israel was supposed to have been. Back in the wilderness, getting it right this time. Showing how it should have been done. Announcing that he was about to lead the people of God back into the Promised Land – the real return from Exile. (We’re moving pretty quickly here: you can see more details in a previous post.)
And some of God’s people were already symbolically out there in the desert, waiting to cross back into the land when the Messiah came. John the Baptist ministered to the crowds in the wilderness to symbolise that Israel was still metaphorically in exile – still wandering in the desert waiting to come back into their own land. There, the crowds that sought him were baptised, symbolising their repentance in readiness for God to begin the next chapter of the story. (To be clear: they weren’t living out in the desert, but the location of John’s baptism was more than just the convenience of having water available. They were going back to the where their relationship with God started – the “scene of their first kiss” – to begin all over again as the people of God. (This is the image used by Hosea in 2:14-15.)
Jesus’ first words
No, I’m not talking about the first words he uttered as a child. It was probably Abba, much to Mary’s disappointment. And it certainly wasn’t what the fourth century Arabic Gospel of the Infancy speculated Jesus said:Inf 1. When He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.
Here, I’m referring to the first words he spoke in public ministry. They are different in each of the four gospels (as they begin with different stories), but their point is strikingly similar.
Mark’s Gospel:Mark 1:15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
A simple announcement that the reign of God – which signalled the end of the exile – is at hand.
Matthew’s Gospel:Matt 4:17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Basically the same as in Mark. And then Matthew goes on to record Jesus going up a mountain (just like Moses at Sinai), beginning his sermon with this announcement:Matt 5:3-6 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth/land. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
These refer to Israel’s hopes for the return from exile and coming reign of God:
- Poor in spirit, those who mourn: see Isaiah 61.
- The meek inheriting the land of Israel: see Psalm 37:10-15 (the word most versions translate “earth” also means “land”).
- Those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteous rule (e.g. Psalm 107:5-9).
This isn’t a set of abstract blessings for certain kinds of people: it’s a bold announcement that Israel’s hope was about to be fulfilled. (For the fuller explanation, see our series on the Sermon on the Mount.)
These are Jesus’ first recorded words as an adult:4:16-21 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
You’ll remember that was the same part of Isaiah (chapter 61) that the first beatitudes referred to. Here, Jesus is unmistakably announcing that he is the fulfilment of Israel’s hope: the return from exile, and the breaking in of God’s perfect rule. Big call.
Although Jesus’ first public words in John’s gospel were as he cleansed the temple (a sign of judgement against Israel’s rulers, in preparation for God’s rule), just before that he’s “sidetracked” by a wedding catering problem – and he ends up turning water into wine. Except was it really a sidetracking? One of the expected features of the return from exile was abundant food and wine (see Isaiah 25:6-8; 54;4-8; 62:4-5), and particularly, wine (Isaiah 9:6-7, but also Jewish writings from the period, like 1 Enoch 62:12-16 and 2 Baruch 29:1-9).
The end of the exile
So in short: by turning up and reenacting Israel’s story (but this time, getting it right), and by making it very clear that the prophecies of the return from exile were being fulfilled (especially the key text of Isaiah 61), Jesus was claiming that the exile was over, and that he was the one who was going to bring that about. It was, in essence, a claim to being the Messiah. (Without actually coming out and saying it, which would have attracted too much unwanted attention from the authorities.)
And it’s not simply an announcement of a new-and-improved way to “get to heaven”: it’s the declaration that an event has taken place in history that has moved the story of God’s people decisively into the next chapter.
Tomorrow, we look at how Jesus didn’t just talk the talk; he also walked the walk. His miracles back up his outlandish claims.
To think about
Has this changed your perception of how Jesus would have been viewed by first century Jews? If so, how?
We’ve talked a lot about Israel’s defining story. Where do you fit into that story? (If you’re not quite sure yet, that’s fine. We’ll get to it sometime next week!)