At our early morning (6am… not easy to wake up for…!) Bible study at church last week we were discussing John 1, and in particular the Jewish expectations of a messiah. Often when we talk about what first-century Jews expected of a messiah it is easy to be critical, as we read the gospels knowing that Jesus will be revealed as the true messiah and expectations of a violent revolutionary will prove to be well wide of the mark.
But it struck me last week that this view may be unfairly harsh on the first-century Jews. After all, the Romans were occupying their promised land, and had desecrated the temple. They were in political turmoil and had apparently been overrun by their enemies.
In these circumstances the desire to rid the land of the Romans was not simply a selfish wish to have an easier, more prosperous life (although it could have been be that too). In fact in many ways it was the logical conclusion from reading the Old Testament narrative and revelation of how God works. God had originally given the land to Israel through a combination of miraculous intervention and military force, and promised to bring them back from exile to live in peace in the land again. The temple was God’s dwelling place, and a testimony to his glory among the nations. For a first-century Jew, living to serve God and see him lifted up and worshipped among the nations necessarily meant overthrowing the Romans and restoring the temple, thereby allowing God to return to his rightful place, with a strong and prosperous Israel a testament to his power.
In this light it was natural (and apparently in keeping with Old Testament prophecy) to expect the messiah to save Israel mightily from her enemies, restoring the temple and the land, and proving to all the onlooking nations that Yahweh was indeed the one and only God.
What was so completely unexpected when the messiah came was the way Jesus redefined the temple, the land, what it meant to be Israel, and, much more fundamentally, how God is glorified among the nations. Who could have expected that the messiah would take the functions of the temple onto himself, or that the promised land would no longer be significant? And who could have ever imagined that the creator God of the universe would choose to become a lowly man, serving the poor and needy and winning the ultimate victory through the ultimate act of humility and humiliation?
I went away from the study (at 7am, so I still wasn’t thinking very clearly…) pondering whether the Jews had actually misinterpreted the Scriptures at all in assuming the messiah would be a warrior. Maybe their mistake was not so much in their understanding of the Scriptures, but rather a lack of imagination in seeing and recognizing how God was transforming and redefining everything that had gone before, fulfilling the Scriptures more profoundly than anyone had ever envisaged.