The Gospel in the First Century

As an undergraduate at MIT, I was confronted with different worldviews that challenged my own on multiple fronts. This caused me to want to understand the historical and contextual origins of my faith on a deeper level. If the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels were actually his,[1] then how might they have been understood by other first-century Jews? What exactly was the gospel or “good news” of which he spoke, and why was it so relevant to non-Jews that it eventually transformed a small sect of the relatively contained Jewish religion into the world’s largest and most geographically diverse faith? What I found in my studies and hope to summarize in this article is that a deeper understanding of the first-century Jewish world in which Jesus lived makes for a much richer appreciation of the good news that he proclaimed. Specifically, I have learned that the Christian faith rests on a much older and more intricate foundation than might be conveyed by a simple summary of the good news one might hear today: namely that “God loves you and Jesus came to die for your sins.” Yet, at the same time, I also have learned that this simple summary stands steadfastly at the center of the good news Jesus brought to us all.[2]

The Call of Abraham: God’s Redemptive Plan

The hopes of Judaism in the first century can roughly be summarized with two words: election and eschatology.[3] What did it mean for the creator God to choose the Jewish people, and what on earth (literally) was God going to do with and for them in the near future? Their worldview, or even raison d’être, like many of us, was heavily impacted by shared memories and narrative. Consequently, their answer would necessarily find its home in a story, one that starts back with Abraham.[4]

The call of Abraham is arguably one of the most defining events in all of history. Abraham is called by God to leave his home, family and country and embark on a journey to a new land and new life, trusting God along the way. God promised to bless him, protect him, and make him the father of a great nation, with the purpose that through his offspring, all the families of the earth would be blessed. When he arrived to what we now call the Holy land, God promised the land to Abraham’s uncountable offspring forever. When Abraham doubted that he would have a son with his wife Sarah, God reiterated His intentions with a binding covenantal promise and it is here that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness—a belief that would hitherto make him known as the Father of all those who believe. Again God re-emphasized that the covenant, or agreement, would be an everlasting covenant with Abraham and Sarah his wife, and that from their offspring nations and kings would come. For Abraham’s part of the covenant, God calls him to faithfulness, to be blameless and to initiate the practice of circumcision for his male offspring as an outward symbol of the covenant. Though he was not perfect, because of his faith and obedience even at trying times, his line of Isaac and Jacob inherited the covenant with the same promises, namely that their offspring would cover the earth and through their offspring all the families of the earth would be blessed.[5]

Moses and the Covenant People of God

A few generations later, Abraham’s descendants became enslaved in the land of Egypt for about 400 years. At this point, God reminded Moses of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and called him to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt to be His chosen people.[6] As God’s presence, in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, led them towards the land promised to Abraham, God renewed and expanded the Abrahamic covenant with His liberated people. The stipulations were that so long as they remained faithful to Him, they would be distinctly set apart from the other idolatrous and wicked nations to be a kingdom of priests to the nations, with the task of making the goodness and Kingship of God known. The laws and ordinances they are given are a means through which they would be both blessed as a nation and set apart as a witness to God’s justice, holiness, forgiveness, compassion and love. That is, the people were to match the external sign of circumcision with an inward reality of circumcised hearts made manifest by loving God with all their heart, soul and mind.[7] As a further witness to God’s character, they are given the tabernacle and sacrificial system as a means of forgiveness, mercy, restoration of fellowship and covenant renewal with God for when they do commit a wrong.

One way in which they reveal God’s will to eventually judge the wicked is by driving out a portion of the people from the land because of their wickedness. Yet in the process of doing so, they were to remember that it was not because of their righteousness but because of the inhabitants’ wickedness and God’s promise to Abraham that they would possess the land. Moses reminded them that if they became prideful, forgot the Lord their God, and practiced the same wickedness as the inhabitants of the land, then they would also be driven from the land into exile because God does not show partiality in judgement.[8] But even then, because of God’s compassion and covenant faithfulness, it is promised that He would bring them back and renew the covenant He had made with their ancestors.9 Further, they were to display God’s heart to the nations by accepting those who would repent from the wicked nations, such as Rahab, and loving the foreigners and vulnerable that would be living in the land with them.[10]

Reflecting on the Call of Abraham

To the first century Jew, the call of Abraham, and then of Moses and Israel to be his people, was the creator God’s answer to the presence of evil in his good creation. For the world is dynamic and relational, and if there is an answer to the problem of evil, then it would include divine action within God’s creation to eliminate evil from it—restoring order, justice and peace. Through this set apart and covenantal relationship, sometimes depicted like a Father and son and other times as a husband and wife, Abraham’s people and the ensuing Kingdom of God are to be the means of undoing primeval sin and its consequences. From Israel a kingdom for all peoples would be established in which God would be King and the nations would know Him and experience His peace, forgiveness and covenant love. Covenantal monotheism intensified this eschatological entailment by committing the creator God to bringing order and peace to His world, and as the covenant God of Israel, He remained committed to doing so through Israel. Reflecting back on this Abrahamic narrative, a Jewish rabbi in the 3rd century commented that Abraham was sent after Adam “to restore righteousness to the world… [and] establish in the world the knowledge of God.”[11]

Kingdom and Exile

Although it was understood that God would always be Israel’s true King,[12] the kingdom of Israel reached its epitome under King David in about 1000 BC. Under his reign, Israel finally controlled all the land once promised to Abraham, and thrived as it traded with distant kingdoms. It was to David, in accordance with the earlier promises to the patriarchs and the covenant with the nation under Moses, that God promised both his everlasting love and an everlasting kingdom.[13] However during the next few hundreds of years, the people wavered back and forth between remaining faithful to God and choosing to live their own way. Certainly at some point God would discipline His people as the covenant prescribed.

Beginning in about 760 BC, Amos the prophet warned of the destruction and exile of the northern 10 tribes of Israel. The judgement stipulated in the covenant was coming upon Israel for their sins. Amos, along with the later prophets, accused the people of chasing after other gods, oppressing the vulnerable and poor, and lacking justice, peace and faithfulness as a people.[14]

What followed from 750 BC until about 450 BC was a series of prophets who gave warnings, judgments, explanations and promises to the kingdoms of Israel (northern 10 tribes) and Judah (southern tribe living around Jerusalem) as they went off into exile to Assyria and Babylon. Central to these messages was that though God’s presence had left the temple and the people were going through judgement for their unfaithfulness to the covenant, to their vocation, and to their God—there would be a time in the future when God would renew the covenant and his people. More specifically, reminiscent of the exodus-out-of-Egypt-story, God would draw them out of exile and bring judgement and victory over the evil that was both within Israel and around them. God would then forgive their sins and create a renewed and expanded people of God as He returned to them and established Himself as King over all the earth. [15]

Messianic Formulations

Within these eschatological hopes is a recurring yet elusive theme of an anointed one, or messiah, who would spearhead God’s redemptive actions in the future, and who is usually understood as a king and possibly also as a teacher, priest and judge.[16] In some way He would be the representative and means through which God would act as the Great Shepherd and King. One particularly sharp example comes from the prophet Micah (ch 4-5) in about 720 BC. It is in fact this foretelling of God becoming King over a worldwide kingdom and His shepherd that would rule with peace that brought the wise men from the east to Bethlehem in search of Jesus, the newborn King. Although some of the Jewish people had been returning to the Promised Land from Babylon since about 500 BC, many, especially the northern ten tribes, were still lost. Thus they held onto hope to be redeemed out of exile, praying to their covenant, monotheistic[17] God, and looking forward to the time when God would make true His promises to the patriarchs and prophets. Under the oppression of Roman rule and Hellenistic culture, the Jewish people of the first century were eager for God to return and re-establish His kingdom and the covenant.[18]

The 1st Century Political Backdrop

It is in this setting that a prophet from Nazareth announced that the kingdom of God was near and that his hearers should repent and believe the good news![19] Jesus began his ministry traveling throughout the countryside proclaiming in his words and deeds that the Kingdom of God was breaking in.

Jesus’s call to action was only one among many of the time. There were in general three Jewish political agendas.[20] The first was to follow the Sadducees, the group of Jewish aristocrats and religious leaders who favored colluding with the Roman officials in exchange for power and wealth. They held the majority of the seats in the Sanhedrin and controlled the temple. On the opposite end of the spectrum were the Essenes, a group who leaned towards asceticism, waiting for God to establish his rule on earth. It is to one of these communities that we owe the Dead Sea Scrolls. Finally the Pharisees represented and led the masses with their strong religious zealotry, which often enough became political, in the hope that in response to their religious observance, God would soon overthrow the oppressive foreign influences and purify the temple and land.

In accordance with these beliefs, there had been multiple kingdom movements, sometimes specifically messianic, in the recent past. The most famous of these was led by the Maccabees in 165 BC, when Judas Maccabeus liberated Jerusalem, cleansed the temple and was crowned King. Though probably not viewed as the Messiah by most, his actions brought fresh hope that the Messianic age was near. However his dynasty lasted for only about 80 years before Rome came and crushed the Jewish rebellion, proving that God had not returned to the temple after all and it had all been a sham, as many had even figured at the time. Other examples include Simon of Peraea in 4 BC, Athronges in 4-2 BC, Judas of Galilee in 6 AD, and Theudas in 45 AD to name a few.21 As key historical sources, we have the first century testimony by Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius that there were certain passages in the Jewish Scriptures that drove the Jewish zealotry with a hope that from Judah, God would establish his worldwide Kingdom soon.[22] Interestingly these authors share the opinion that the Roman victor of the Jewish War in 70 AD, either Vespasian or Titus, was in fact the fulfillment of these Jewish hopes. Josephus in particular even pleaded with some fellow Jews before the Jewish war in 70 AD to trust him, drop their weapons and accept Rome as the kingdom blessed by God. Finally it was one such Messianic attempt in 135 AD by Simon Bar Kochba and Aqiba, a prominent religious leader, that brought the crushing weight of Rome down on Jerusalem once and for all, ending any dreams of a messiah for the next few hundred years.

In this context it can be understood that Jesus too was in fact calling for a subversive kingdom movement, both against the Jewish religious leaders and the Romans. Like the Pharisees, he was calling for a rededication to the God of their fathers. And similarly to Josephus, he was calling people to trust him and his way forward, based on his understanding of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus begins his Ministry

At about the age of 30, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, anointed by God and filled with the Holy Spirit. In a journey reminiscent of when God led Israel in her youth out of Egypt and into the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, Jesus entered a period of 40 days of temptation and fasting in the wilderness. After delivering an early defeat to the devil, Jesus came out of the wilderness in the power of the Spirit and immediately defined his kingdom movement in alignment with what he believed to be God’s purposes by quoting from Isaiah 61, a well-known messianic passage:[23]

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Within his general call to all and sundry to follow him, Jesus soon specifically called a group of twelve disciples as a symbolic gesture that would have turned heads and lifted ears. Israel had not been unified with its 12 tribes for almost 800 years, with the distinct whereabouts of the northern 10 tribes still unknown. Now Jesus was symbolically at the head of a new Israel, establishing a renewed people of God around himself. Could it be now at last that the exile was coming to an end? That God was going to forgive Israel’s sins, and that He was now coming to heal them and make His home with them once again? Jesus brought new meaning to these questions by claiming to forgive sins, not in the temple, but in his presence and by his authority. By embarking on a busy ministry of healings, stooping low to lift the downtrodden, and calling them to follow, Jesus would have brought passages of healing and God’s shepherding to mind.[24] A fitting contemporary analogy is the prophecy of the rightful king of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings which states: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer and so the rightful king shall ever be known.” Thus Jesus was showing in word and deed that God was in fact becoming King.

Kingdom Ethics

Alongside his actions, with words and stories Jesus taught what it would mean to be part of the Kingdom.[25] Though in ways answering the same questions as the other kingdom movements, Jesus saw Israel’s long history going in a different direction. It would not be the nationalist, glorified and yet typical earthly kingdom many of his followers, even his closest, might have imagined.[26] In response to the Roman oppression in Palestine, Jesus gave a radical challenge to love one’s enemies and pray for those that would persecute you—to open the clenched hands and give to those who are oppressing you. Jesus provided the simple rationale that even God shows his love towards the wicked and one ought to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect.[27] Jesus called His followers to practice overwhelming kindness and forgiveness, especially in response to injustice. As Jesus summed up his mission in saying that he, the son of Man, (a king!) came not to be served but to be serve (and give his life as a ransom for many), so too the life of the Kingdom community would be summed up in sacrificial service and forgiveness.[28]

Symbols and Controversy

By issuing these kingdom ethics, Jesus was doing little more than calling Israel to be Israel—to be a city on a hill, a light to the nations of God’s goodness[29] and a kingdom of priests to channel the graciousness of God. Instead of shining outwards, they had turned the mirrors inwards in nationalistic fervor. The blessings for the world of knowledge of and relationship with God, were being hoarded by the physical offspring of Abraham. Instead of the law being a means through which the nations would see and wonder at the justice, mercy, love and holiness of Israel’s God, they had used and added to the law to make it an instrument to build barriers against the filthy gentiles. Jesus reprimanded the religious leaders for adding to the commandments of God the words of men, and by quoting from Isaiah he reminded them of one of the reasons for the exile:

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”[30]

An example of controversy was Jesus’s stance towards food laws, summed up in his saying that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out of his heart.[31] In addition Jesus routinely sparked controversy for healing on the Sabbath, a time set apart from work. Jesus challenged that man was not made for the Sabbath but that the Sabbath was made for man to be a time to rest and reflect in community. More controversial yet he asserted that he in fact was lord of the Sabbath.[32]

In accordance with the prophets before, and specifically with his own pardoning of sins, Jesus called for mercy and justice instead of animal sacrifice, loving faithfulness to the covenantal God instead of adherence to burdensome traditions. For the sum of the law and the prophets was just this: to Love God with one’s heart, soul and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.[33] By refocusing on the heart of the law, Jesus showed that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He challenged the religious leaders’ understanding by reminding them of the law’s true purpose, demanding a higher standard and even seeing himself and his teaching as where the law was pointing.[34] Most scandalously he called people to follow and identify with him, denying themselves, and to carry a cross daily: a portion of the world’s injustice and pain. As will be shown, it is arguably this call of allegiance to himself over and against the other Jewish symbols that was the most controversial.[35]

A Welcome and a Summons to Come Home

Though his teachings and invitation were demanding, Jesus held this in tension with a summons to all who are weary to come to him, promising that in him there would be rest: his yoke would be easy and his burden light.[36] The time of exile and judgement was over, and for those who would come, God was being reconciled to His people without waiting for them to get their act together first. Faithfulness would be required, but even the lowest could come as they were—they were welcomed and called to come home to His arms. Jesus demonstrated this with his action of routinely eating and associating with all the wrong people—sinners, tax collectors, non-Jews, and every other type of outcast. The suspicion aroused by these actions led Jesus to tell stories of the good shepherd who pursued the lost sheep, the women who searched for the one lost coin and the father who welcomed his prodigal son home.[37] One noteworthy occurrence is when Jesus shared a meal with the eager tax collector Zacchaeus, a noted sinner who was viewed as an outsider for colluding with the Romans. Upon meeting Jesus he repented for any past dishonesty and turned his life around. In response Jesus concluded that salvation had come to his house because he too was indeed a son of Abraham. For welcoming those with hearts like Zacchaeus was precisely why Jesus, the Son of Man came: to seek and save what was lost.[38]

With actions and words like these, the question hardly needed asking. Who would be part of the new people of God? Again Jesus radically subverted the nationalistic agenda of his day by elevating allegiance to him and his kingdom movement over devotion to land, nation and family.[39] But what about the national promises to Abraham and the rest? Jesus’s message took root in the arguably deeper promise that Abraham’s descendants, raised from the stones if need be,[40] would both be from all nations and be a blessing to all nations, and that God’s kingdom would extend to the ends of the earth. For when God brought salvation to Israel, it would be for the nations as well.[41]

As stated at his ministry’s beginning, it is with this Spirit and agenda that Jesus welcomed in the outsiders, declaring that he did not come for the healthy, but for the sick who need a doctor. For he, as the good shepherd, came to gather the lambs, to heal the brokenhearted and break the shackles of the prisoner.[42] In his actions and words he made it clear that those who would come to him in faith whether Gentile or Jew, would receive healing, forgiveness and acceptance in the Kingdom.[43]

Suffering, Judgement and Vindication

Within the dominant story of exile and restoration, there is in several biblical and post-biblical texts a major subplot: deliverance will come about through a time of intense suffering, sometimes referred to as the “messianic woes.” The great tribulation would burst upon the nation and through it would come redemption, the new age and the forgiveness of sins. At times, some Jewish groups or individuals thought of themselves as becoming the focal points of Israel’s suffering. Specifically, many of the second temple developments on this theme (after ~520 BC) seem to go back to various biblical texts to suggest that Israel’s sufferings as a nation would be focused at a single point, and that through that suffering would come redemptive salvation and reconciliation with God.[44] The famous servant passages in Isaiah 40-55 are notable examples.[45] It is therefore not incredible to think that Jesus would have such a mindset of “taking on the messianic woes” as he approached his own death.

Indeed, Jesus seemed to see his own death looming large on the horizon. For some reason he, the Son of Man, must suffer and die.[46] Though he repeatedly asserted this, his disciples could not fathom that he, their long awaited Messiah, the one who was to fight the battle against Israel’s enemies, establish God’s kingdom, and rebuild the temple, would die. How could a dead Messiah sit on the throne of David and bring justice and peace to both Israel and the world? No, in their minds and the minds of many others, a dead Messiah, like in the other messianic movements, was a failed Messiah. Although Jesus also promised that he would rise from the dead, this seemed too ridiculous to be seriously considered, even by his closest followers. Even if such an unnatural event occurred, they couldn’t foresee at the time how this would in any way further the establishment of God’s Kingdom.

At last, on the Sunday preceding the Passover festival, as a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd as the returning King.[47] Although Zechariah speaks of a worldwide kingdom of peace, the surrounding passages postulate that there must also be a great battle. During the following week Jesus’s subversion of the Jewish symbols climaxed one afternoon in the temple. Met with an open market in the temple, Jesus was filled with anger that what was to be a house of prayer for all nations had become a den of robbers. By quoting from Isaiah 56, Jesus was aligning himself with the mission and plan of Israel’s God: that one day there would be a people from all nations worshiping the Lord together at His temple and living in justice and peace. In step with the messianic task to purge and rebuild the temple, Jesus called down judgement on the temple as a corrupt religious symbol, claiming himself as its replacement. Though his actions of forgiving sins and calling for allegiance from all and sundry had subtly foreshadowed that he would supercede the temple, he now explicitly stated that he would bring the fulfillment of all that the temple had stood for. Importantly, his concern for the misuse of the court of the gentiles showed that when he replaced the temple, there would be a renewed emphasis on explicitly bringing the gentiles into the people of God. As the temple had been, he would become the place of sacrifice and reconciliation between God and His covenant people. He would be the embodiment of forgiveness, hope and God’s dwelling in their midst as the God of covenant renewal, covenant steadfastness, and covenant love. He would become the chief cornerstone sung about in the pilgrim’s temple building song, and his kingdom would be the stone that would fill the whole earth.[48] Therein the religious leaders had had enough. His subversion of their own agenda and symbols had gone too far, and with the commotion of the Passover festival approaching and the possibility of an uprising, it was an opportune time to make a case to the Romans that he was a rabble rouser, a would-be Jewish King who would challenge Rome’s authority.

The New Covenant and the Forgiveness of Sins

Knowing this, Jesus ate his last supper with his friends while celebrating the Passover meal. The Passover festival as a whole looked back to when God delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt to be a nation set apart and holy. During this meal Jesus declared that the establishment of the new covenant and the forgiveness of sins would be in his broken body and spilled blood.[49] As God had once before made a covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel with stipulations of sacrificial forgiveness, faithfulness and vocation, Jesus was now making an analogous covenant with his twelve disciples. Upon hearing Jesus speak of a new covenant being made, most any Jew would think back to Jeremiah 31. In this section, predicated on the declaration of God’s everlasting love, it says that He “will lead them back..[He] will gather [them], and will keep [them] as a shepherd keeps his flock…among them [will be] the blind and the lame (8-12).” The passage builds to verse 31 with the promise of the new covenant with the whole house of Israel. In this new covenant, God would write His law on the people’s hearts, make Himself known to all from the least to the greatest, and would forgive and remember their sins no more. By deliberately invoking the exodus-tradition, Jesus was indicating that the hope of Israel for God’s salvation and covenant renewal would now come true in and through his own death. It would be the central and climatic moment toward which the story of Israel’s redemption, and even the redemption of the world, was moving. Like many times during Jesus’s ministry, it was those that were willing to share a meal with him that he considered to be the people of the new covenant, the people who received “the forgiveness of sins” and who would be arriving home from exile. Grouped around him, they constituted the new and true eschatological Israel.

Jesus, the Cross and the Love of God

Later in the meal, Jesus alluded to the same section from Zechariah as he had a week earlier when riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as King. However, this time he identified himself with a shepherd that is stricken by God. As a whole the passage is a good example of the messianic woes. Following the return of the King comes a battle, and it is only through struggle and judgement that God’s kingdom and the refined people of God are established. The judgment would come to both the corrupt shepherds within Israel and the oppressive outside forces. Throughout this section of Zechariah, the tension builds between victory and defeat. Words of victory promise that “on that day” when the nations do battle against Israel, the house of David (think rightful King) shall be like God and like the angel of the Lord of the past, at the head of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Spiritual restoration and victory would come as God pours out his spirit of grace and repentance. But first in sorrow they will look upon him50 whom they have pierced and mourn as one mourns the loss of an only son. It is in the midst of this judgement and refinement that the shepherd, the man who stands next to God, is struck and the sheep are scattered. Finally the drama reaches its climax with the nation’s marching against Jerusalem. It looks as if defeat is eminent as the city is overrun and ransacked. But when all hope is seemingly lost, the Lord will arrive to do battle. Beginning at the Mount of Olives, He will sweep in to bring victory and become King over all the earth. That day will be a unique day unlike any other, and a light will shine in the evening. Following the victory the entire city will be purified and made holy, and from the city, living waters will flow henceforth and forevermore to the ends of the earth. There will even be reconciliation with those that fought against Jerusalem and they will begin to worship the King.[51]

From this self-identification as the “shepherd who is stricken” and more strongly from the general Jewish messianic expectation and claim, it appears that Jesus believed that he would fight the battle against Israel’s enemies and that he would rebuild the temple. Although Jesus did assert that there would be judgement, mainly against those who were leading Israel astray and rejecting his way of peace, culminating in the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in 70 AD, he believed that the true enemy was not the Romans or the corrupt religious leaders but evil itself. The battle was to be fought against darkness itself and not its offspring.[52]

In alignment with his actions and claims to both judge and replace the temple, Jesus saw himself as taking the role of Jerusalem in this battle passage. As expressed before, Jesus’s authoritative claims regarding the temple were central to his understanding of his death. And as the temple was the heart and soul of the city, the impenetrable defense when God dwelt there, being the temple of God was akin to being Jerusalem. Jesus would do battle with the forces that rage against God and his anointed one,[53] and in accordance with Jesus’s call to people throughout his ministry to unite themselves to him, those that found shelter in Jerusalem would be saved, becoming the renewed people of God. Though his agony in the garden, his flogging, and finally his crucifixion would be signs of a horrifying defeat, he believed that he would ultimately triumph and reign as King via the resurrection and the establishment of the kingdom. Through the piercing of his side, his water and blood would flow out to bring healing and the forgiveness of sins to the nations.[54]

By willingly going to his death, Jesus was actually being faithful to his own message of bringing justice and peace to the nations. He did this by turning the other cheek, loving the enemy, and carrying his own cross, even walking the extra mile out of the city to the place of crucifixion. Jesus, as the servant of Isaiah 49 and 42, would take up the vocation of Israel alone to be the light of the world and the means through which God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth. On the cross Jesus would be God’s holy arm outstretched and laid bare for all the nations to see God’s salvation.[55] He would be the son of Man that would gain victory over the fourth beast and rise to the Ancient of Days to sit as the eternal king.[56] He would be the Passover lamb, providing protection against God’s judgment. He would be both the sacrificial lamb and the priest, taking on the sins of the people and going before them to intercede on their behalf. He would be the suffering servant of Isaiah 52-53, taking on the sins of us all to bring us healing and peace. In his death Jesus went as far as possible into exile away from the Father to bring us home. The death of the shepherd would result in a renewed and expanded people of God. The cross, the instrument of tyranny, oppression and pain, would be transformed into the symbol of the love of God.

The Resurrection and the Return of the King

That day his disciples and followers watched and scattered in dismay and fear as their acclaimed messiah was scourged and crucified. Although Jesus had warned of his coming death, they could only question how was being crucified going to overthrow Rome and establish God’s Kingdom? Evil was still demonstrably present, and where was the promised peace?

The immediate natural reaction was to hide and hope that their involvement in this failed messianic movement would not have consequences. They could then either give up the revolution and dreams of liberation or find a new messiah or leader to continue the movement.[57]

However, as they were hiding in a secret room on the third day after the crucifixion, their worlds were turned upside down as some of the female followers of Jesus proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead. In Judaism at the time, the general belief was that the resurrection would happen at the dawn of the new age, when God restored Israel, established His kingdom, renewed the covenant and all the righteous dead were raised simultaneously. When Jesus spoke of the Son of Man rising from the dead as an individual within the continuing flow of history, the disciples were rightfully puzzled as to what he could be talking about.[58] When Lazarus was raised to life by Jesus, there was no reason to say that the resurrection of the dead had begun. It was evident that he would die again and besides, his extended life would not mean that the new age and the Kingdom of God had begun.

But when God raised Jesus from the grave with a glorified body, his disciples finally understood that Jesus and his Kingdom movement had been vindicated by God. He had not left Jesus in the grave as a failed pretender, but favored him and demonstrated that Jesus had spoken truly when he foresaw his resurrection. His rising from the dead verified his earlier claim that he really must be the Messiah, and therefore God had at last established his everlasting Kingdom and Jesus was in fact the King.[59] More than that, as Jesus had lived and preached, God’s redemptive work was in fact tied up with His life, death and now resurrection—not only as the suffering servant, shepherd, priest and king, but as truly one with the Father in word and deed. His defeat of both evil and death via the resurrection meant that the long night of exile was over and a new age had dawned for both Israel and the world. Jesus was the first fruits of this new creation—a promise and foretaste of the final resurrection and renewal of all things come to the present. In step with the parable Jesus had told of the mustard seed, Jesus went into the ground so that the Kingdom of God would shoot forth and become the largest of all garden plants, filled with the birds of the air.[60] The cross and empty tomb had now become both the symbols and guarantee of the love and victory of God.

Before ascending to Heaven, Jesus promised that He would be with them always by sending the Spirit of God. He also helped them understand the Hebrew Scriptures; that everything written about Him in the Law, Prophets and Psalms must be fulfilled. He then commanded them to go proclaim and live the Kingdom, teaching that in His name there is repentance and the forgiveness of sins for all nations.[61]

The Early Church Witness

Upon receiving the Spirit of God, the disciples begin to preach in Jerusalem exactly this: that Jesus is the Messiah appointed by God to rule eternally on the throne of their father David and that though they had ignorantly disowned the holy and righteous one and had killed the author of life, the God of the their fathers had raised Him from the dead.[62] Now in his name and through relationship with Him there is healing, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness of sins, salvation and the resurrection of the dead for the Jewish people and the whole world.[63] For this was the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham: that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. Therefore the hearers should repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and the receiving of God’s Spirit,[64] for now is the time that through Jesus, God is pouring out his Spirit on all people. But if they refuse then they will be cut-off from the renewed people of God. For it is in Christ Jesus that all of God’s covenantal promises will be realized, both in the future and in righteous living here and now.[65]

This message was carried outside of Jerusalem to the gentiles, declaring that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not and that the hearer should turn, repent and believe the good news. Peace and justice would come to the nations, not through Caesar Augustus or the pax Romana, but through the reign of Jesus the Messiah. This was not some inner individualistic spiritual movement but a kingdom of God movement grounded in history, which spread to France in the west and to India in the east in less than a century. Indeed Roman rule and the pagan Hellenistic culture would be challenged and in many ways overthrown by Jesus and His kingdom.[66]

Certainly the resurrection and establishment of God’s Kingdom was an absurd claim for any Jew to make about a man crucified. The idea would have been obscene to any Jew and foolishness to any gentile, but it is exactly this absurdity that continues to baffle the best of alternative theories for the start of the early church. To believe that these men and women would die such painful deaths while proclaiming something about Jesus that, according to this theory, they knew to be false seems to take more faith than believing in the resurrection itself. It is further noteworthy that had the resurrection not actually happened, there would be no basis for them to continue to believe and preach that the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people and indeed the whole world were coming true through Jesus because such a story was at so much odds with their expectations. But yet given the solution of a crucified and risen Messiah, and with the help of God’s Spirit, their eyes were opened to see the strange but powerful plan of God’s redemption and restoration of the world.

The Gospel in the 21st Century

Well it’s an old story and yet, for better or worse as you may see it, it holds onto the present. I, along with hundreds of millions of others have found this story of God and His working of salvation through Jesus to satisfy our deepest longings for rest, to be a source of comfort through suffering and a way forward towards peace and fraternity in our aching world. Further the good news of the story is that there is a place to lay down our sin and our burdens and experience the forgiveness and love of God. Because of this story we have hope that God, through the reign of Jesus, is making all things new. Though we do not claim perfection, it is a source of power to love, be transformed and live life to the fullest. And so from my unashamedly biased position, I invite you to investigate Jesus: the man of sorrows, the Good Shepherd and the Victorious King. With your heart and mind consider this old, yet living story, examining Jesus to see if He is trustworthy and true and what it might mean for your own life to trust in and follow Him.



1 For the sake of critical scholarship, I will only be referring to the Synoptic Gospels in this paper. The question of the preservation of the NT Gospels is something I have read about and summarized my findings in the following link:

2 I am deeply indebted to the work and writings of N.T. Wright, historian, retired Anglican Bishop and Professor of NT Studies at St. Andrews University. I have particularly enjoyed his series Christian Origins and the Question of God.

3 I do not mean to create a caricature of the Jewish faith in the first century and it is true that my understanding of the Jewish faith is necessarily affected by my Christian faith. I am very eager to discuss any challenges you have to the understanding I show in this article.

4 Yes, you could start with Adam and Eve but the short answer would start with Abraham.

5 Gen 12:1-3, Gen 13:14-18, Gen 15, Gen 17:1-16 Gen 21-22 , Gen 26:3-5, Gen 28:10-17, Gen 32, Gen 35:9-15

6 Exodus 3:2 13-15 , Exodus 4:5, Exodus 6:2-8

7 Exodus 19:3-6, Exodus 20-23, Deut 4:5-8, Deut 10:12-22, Deut 26:16-19, Deut 7:6-26

8 Deut 9, Deut 6: Deut 8, Lev 20:22-24, Lev 18:24-28, Deut 12:29-32 Though a whole paper could be written about the conquest of Canaan I encourage the reader to read this blog post:

9 Deut 28-30, Deat 4:25-31

10 Deut 10:12-22 Lev 19, Joshua 2, Psalm 82:3, 35, 89, 140, Isaiah 58, etc..

11 Genesis Rabbah 14:6. 3rd century Midrash: Commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures pg 67

12 1 Chron 29:10-12, Psalm 24, Psalm 47, Psalm 29:10, Psalm 103:19, Jeremiah 10:10 etc.

13 2 Sam 7, Psalm 89, Psalm 45, Psalm 132, Psalm 22, 1 Chron 17 etc.

14 Amos 2:6-15, 3:2, 5:21-24 Zechariah 7:8-14, Micah 6, Isaiah 1,3,5 49, Jeremiah 22, Hosea (esp Ch 4) Ezekiel 22 etc.

15 Micah 2, 4-5, 7, Zechariah 2:10-13,8:20-23, 9:9-10,13 -14, Isaiah 2,9,11,12,14,25,34-35, 42, 45, 49, 52, 54-56, 60, 61, 62, 65, 66, Hosea 1-3, 6-7, 10, 13-14 Psalm 46, 22 etc..

16 Isaiah 11, Jeremiah 23,33, Dan 7, Hosea 3, Zech 6, Deut 18:15-19, Psalm 2, 110 etc.. See The Messiah in the Old Testament by Walter Kaiser and Ch 11 of Jesus and the Victory of God by NT Wright.

17 Jewish monotheism was most necessarily not an abstract numerical assertion on the inner being of God, but rather a declaration that their God was the creator God, the true and living God who was the King of the universe and would be the King of the world.

18 Although the temple had been rebuilt in about 516 BC and then rebuilt by Herod in 30 BC, it was only a shadow of its former self and was not seen as legitimate. Most importantly, God’s Spirit had not returned to it, showing that the full reconciliation between God and His people was still to come. Further, the promise of an everlasting kingdom to David was temporarily contingent on the faithfulness of Israel but ultimately guaranteed by the faithfulness of God.

19 Mark 1:15, Luke 4:42-44, Matthew 4:17

20 See Ch 7 of The New Testament and the People of God by NT Wright.

21 See more at

22 Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 6.312-313, Tacitus, Histories 5.13 , Suetonius Life of Vespasian 4.5

23 Luke 4:1, Luke 4:14-21

24 Isaiah 35,40 Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 34, Hosea 6, Psalm 95, 79, 100, 23 etc..

25 The “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 is the most concise passage that outlines this but examples can be found throughout the Gospels.

26 Luke 9:46-48,54, 22:24-30 Matthew 22:17-21, 26:52, 18:1-5

27 Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36

28 Daniel 7, Mark 10:45, Matthew 6:5-14, 18:21-35, Matt 20:28

29 Isaiah 42, Deut 4:5-8, Deut 10:12-22, Deut 26:16-19

30 Mark 7:6, Matthew 15: 7-9, Isaiah 29:13

31 Mark 7, Matthew 15:10-20

32 Mark 7, Matthew 12:1-14

33 Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-37, Mark 12:28-31

34 Matthew 5, 7:12, 28-29, 9:10-13, 11:13-15,19, 12:1-14 15:1-20, 22:36-40, 23:1-11, 23-28

35 The key Jewish symbols were Temple, Torah, nation and land. See Ch 8 of The New Testament and the People of God by NT Wright.

36 Matthew 11:28-30, Isaiah 9,14 Lev 26:12-13

37 Luke 15, Matthew 9:9-10, Mark 2:13-17. An important detail that is sometimes missed in the story of the Prodigal son is that the son is not only forgiven but redeemed. From the time when the son leaves the Father to when he returns the Father has to incur the costs of 1) losing the inheritance he gave his son, 2) the pain of his son preferring him to be dead, 3) losing his dignity by running to meet the son, and 4) the material and social costs of the party that is thrown for the returning son. In reality I think it is true that forgiveness always requires a cost to the forgiver and this is one reason why I find the sacrificial atonement theology of the cross to be both necessary and true.

38 Luke 19, Ezekiel 34, Isaiah 40, Jeremiah 31, Hosea 2

39 Matthew 8:18-22, 12:46-50, 22:15-22, Luke 8:19-21, 9:57-62

40 Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8, Mark 3:31-34

41 The original promise to the Patriarchs. See footnote 16

42 Luke 4:14-21, Isaiah 61, Isaiah 40,42,11, 57, Ezekiel 34, Jeremiah 31, Micah 5, Psalm 147 etc.

43 Matthew 8-9, 20:29-33, Luke 7:1-10, 36-50, 8:42-48 etc.

44 The Maccabean martyrs and several of the prophets are good examples. See Ch 8 and Ch 9 (pgs 579-591) of Jesus and the Victory of God by NT Wright

45 Isaiah 42,49,50-53

46 Luke 18:31-34 Mark 8:31-33, Matthew 17:22 etc.

47 Zechariah 9, see also See Ch 13 of The New Testament and the People of God by NT Wright. As was noted in the Micah 4-5 passage, there were dual hopes, sometimes combined together, of God returning to His people and the rightful King being enthroned. .

48 Matthew 21:42-44, Mark 11:12-18, 13, Psalm 118, Acts 4:11, Daniel 2, Isaiah 28

49 Matthew 26:17-35, Mark 14:22-31

50 Possibly God, the translation is difficult

51 This last paragraph is a summary of Zechariah Ch 9-14. Zech 2:10-13 and 8:20-23 also speak of many nations joining themselves to the Lord “on that day” and will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord.

52 This fact is seen as the fulfillment of the “protoevangelium” or first gospel in Gen 3:15 given by God to Adam and Eve after they sin. One of their offspring would crush the serpent’s head when the serpent strikes his heel. See also Isaiah 25:6-9 and the defeat of death.

53 Psalm 2

54 John 19:34

55 Isaiah 52, 40 see also Isaiah 59, 45, 53,

56 Dan 7, Mark 14:60-65, Matthew 26:63-67

57 i.e. the rabbinic movement in AD 135 after Simon Bar Kochba was killed or the continuing movement from Judas the Galilean in AD 6 to his descendants in the 50s, Menahem during the war of 66-70 and then Eleazar the leader of the Masada stand in 73.

58 Mark 9:9-10, Matthew 16:21-23 etc.

59 Acts 2:22-36

60 Mark 4:32, Matthew 13:31-32, see also Isaiah 11 and the root of Jesse that would establish a worldwide kingdom.

61 Luke 24:13-53, Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 1-2

62 Acts 3:13-16, 7:52 , Mark 1:23-24. The title “Holy and Righteous One of Israel” is a popular name or amendment to God in the OT, see Isaiah 54:5-8, Isaiah 43:3, Isaiah 48:17 among other occurrences.

63 Acts 2-5,

64 Acts 2:38-39

65 Acts 3:17-26

66 The Jewish hope to be overthrow Roman rule and Hellenistic culture arguably came true for the Church as it gained widespread acceptance and power in the Roman Empire. Consider also that the Vatican sits in Rome and the Orthodox Church, though worldwide, is rooted in Greece.


Erik Johnson ’15 is an MEng student in Electrical  Engineering from West Michigan. He enjoys sports, reading, building things, and spending time with friends and family. He hopes to pursue engineering solutions for energy development.

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