Sunday, May 17, 2015

Messiah: Suffering Servant Or Conquering King? (Part 2)

Question: According to Jewish beliefs from the first century A.D., the Messiah was supposed to be a warrior who, through divine aid, would free his people from the yoke of the Roman Empire (not be put to death by it). But, then, there is that prophecy in Isaiah that refers to a Messiah offered as a sacrifice for his people. Here's my question: Is that really true? And, if it is, why are there such different ideas about the coming of the Messiah? Should he be a triumphant warrior, or could he have some different characteristics?

TWH: Antonio responded to this question on Thursday. You can read his answer here. In this post, I want to offer my own perspective. The first thing I'd like to do is take a look at John the Baptist, as I think it shows the tension between these differing views of the Messiah quite well. What's interesting, though, is we find both understandings held by the same individual.

When we come to John 1:29 we find an interesting declaration about Jesus' identity. John the Baptist is recorded as saying, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" We see John the Baptist make the same declaration just a few verses later in 1:35-36: "Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples. And he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God!'" John 1:19–2:12 describes some events that take place over a series of days following Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan and his temptation by Satan in the wilderness. Real fast, here’s an overview of the roughly eleven-day period:
Day 1 (John 1:19-28): John's interaction with the envoy from Jerusalem.
Day 2 (John 1:29-34): John's testimony concerning the identity of Jesus; Jesus returns to where John is by the Jordan.
Day 3 (John 1:35-42): Two of John's disciples follow Jesus; Andrew brings Peter to Jesus.
Day 4 (John 1:43-51): Philip follows Jesus, and brings Nathaniel to Jesus as well.
Three Days Later (John 2:1-11): Jesus performs miracle at a wedding in Cana.
A Few More Days (John 2:12): Jesus goes down to Capernaum and stays there a few days.
On the first day, John is confronted with an envoy from Jerusalem, which consisted of priests and Levites (John 1:19). They came out to the wilderness to ask John about his identity. His immediate answer did not tell them who he was, but who he was not: “I am not the Christ” (ἐγὼ οὐκ εἰμὶ ὁ χριστός; John 1:20). He identifies himself as the one who prepares the way for the Lord. It is important to note that Jesus had already been baptized (Matt. 4:16). He had already undergone a concerted effort by Satan to replicate with Jesus all that he had accomplished with Adam in the garden (Matt. 4:1-11; Genesis 3). John had already identified him as the one from whom he needed to receive a baptism (Matt. 4:15). He had already seen the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus (Matt. 4:16; John 1:32). He had already heard the Father’s voice from heaven declaring Jesus is his Son (Matt. 4:17).

Then comes the next day. John makes his own proclamation. Everything that has transpired has confirmed a thousand times over that this one is not just God’s Son, but God’s Lamb: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b). John declares that Jesus is more important than he is and that John existed before him (John 1:30). And before the day is over John repeats the testimony he heard from the Father, namely that Jesus is the Son of God (John 1:34). It is no wonder that on the third day some of John’s disciples began to follow Jesus (John 1:37). The "Son of God" is equated with being the "Lamb of God." No one can miss the point here. When John refers to Jesus being the Lamb, he undoubtedly has the idea of sacrifice in mind, specifically a sacrifice for sins.

What happens, though, when we fast-forward over a year into Jesus' ministry and see John's questions about Jesus' identity? Here's what we read in Matthew 11:
"When Jesus had finished giving instructions to His twelve disciples, He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities. Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, 'Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?' (Matt. 11:1-3)
John wants to know if Jesus is the one they've all been waiting for, or if they should look for someone else. How did he go from declaring Jesus as the Son of God and the Lamb of God, to now wondering if he is the one the Scriptures have been pointing to all this time? While some people might look at this as a deplorable moment of weakness, we have to realize that this was (1) a monumentally important moment in history, and (2) the reaction of someone who was imprisoned, sort of shut out from the real world and not able to see all the things that Jesus was doing. Of course, another very important element to all of this is John was probably trying to reconcile the liberating characteristics of the Messiah with the sacrificial element. We find the same tension in the thinking of the disciples. No matter how many times Jesus said he was going to die, the disciples would not accept it. Peter even declares that he plans on dying in place of the Lamb, which causes Jesus to issue a strong rebuke. The nation of Israel was longing for the deliverance, probably more than the majority were longing for the everlasting forgiveness promised in the New Covenant.

So, what's going on here? How can John on the one hand refer to Jesus as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" and then question whether or not Jesus is the one for whom they've all been waiting? The answer is because both are found in the Old Testament, sometimes placed side-by-side. Let's just take the first portion of the Pentateuch as an example. Look at the first salvific promise in Genesis, found in Genesis 3:15: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel." One is coming that is coming to put an end to Satan. But, in the process of doing so, Satan will bruise the heel of the head-crusher. The remainder of Genesis is really a narrative in which God delimits time and time again who the head-crusher is going to be. More and more revelation is given as time progresses concerning who this one is going to be. We can best account for the Flood in Genesis 6-9 by viewing the events during that time period as a threat against the seed lineage. But let's fast forward to Genesis 49. We read in Gen. 49:10 that one is coming, and this is his description: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples." We have here a conquering king. All of this is right there in Genesis. It is not a later addition or development in Hebrew thought. It is not a fabrication or manipulation by Christians trying to reconcile Jesus' death at the very last minute so they wouldn't lose support for their movement. The plan was always for Jesus to give his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. The promises of deliverance will be fully realized. Jesus will return and sit on David's throne, and the obedience of all peoples will be his.

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