The Jewish people in Jesus’ day were looking around, and could see that things did not seem to be going well for the chosen people. There was an understanding that they had broken the covenant and God had distanced Himself. Ezekiel 10 relates the departure of the presence of God from His temple: His glory departed from the east gate.
Ezekiel 43 prophesied the return of the Presence of God: the return of the Glory of the Lord:
As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the templeIsaiah 43:4-5
The return of God’s Presence to the temple was anticipated by the first century Jewish people – an important event and sign of the hoped-for restoration of Israel.
The restoration of Israel!
What a longed-for event, awaited with eager longing. We can feel our own hearts burning for them, for His return to deliver the people! That glorious day when they could sing out:
Hark, your watchmen lift up their voice, together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.Isaiah 52:8-9
Further events and signs would accompany the restoration of Israel. Events like true worship in the temple. The first century Jews had a temple, but it was of dubious status. Herod had built it. He was not the one destined to build the true temple: that was for the lineage of David and Solomon to do. Not this foul interloper, “Herod.”
Events like the cleansing of the land! When Israel was restored, God’s covenant people would no longer have unclean pagans interfering. Moses had told Pharaoh that the Israelites needed to go into the wilderness so they could worship God with true worship (Exodus 5). Pharoah, that slave-driver, denied them. But God acted powerfully to deliver them completely out of Egypt, with God’s glory – His Presence – going before them and dwelling with them in the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33).
The Israelties had suffered exile into Babylon, an event they interpreted as punishment for breaking the covenant with God. The glory of the Lord had departed from them. Despite returning to Jerusalem, they had fallen into oppression under the Romans and were not free to be God’s people.
The people of the covenant had been destined to restore the true vocation of humanity, to give glory to God, to bring His salvation to all ends of the Earth. But things were not going well in the first century. Instead of a splendid light to the nations, they were the laughing-stock of the nations. They awaited their vindication.
God had acted powerfully in the world for them in their past. He was faithful to His covenant. He would act again, in the world and history, to vindicate and restore them. True worship in the true temple would be reestablished. The glory of the Lord would return. They would recover the land to be a pure and spotless people. Israel’s king would come in glory to rule them, and through them, renew all creation and the world would be set back to rights. Israel’s God would pour out his spirit to keep Torah from the heart, properly. Prisoners would be free, the blind would see, and the people would live in the state of shalom, in peace with every person under his vine or fig-tree.
The restoration of Israel would usher in the kingdom of God. These hopes of Israel would be ushered in by their long-awaited Messiah.
Since Israel had broken the covenant, one of the signs they awaited was the forgiveness of sins. They waited for God to tell them that their sins were forgiven so that the New Covenant foretold in Jeremiah and Isaiah could be ushered in.
These Jewish hopes for the kingdom help us understand what Jesus meant on that day, in the synagogue, where, with all eyes fixed on Him, he read the scroll of Isaiah that referred to signs that would come to pass when the restoration of Israel was accomplished, and He said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:18-20.
Understanding the hopes of the Jews helps us understand what it means to be in the kingdom of God, today.
Because Jesus did establish His Kingdom. We are invited to be a part of it now. With Him as King, now. To be His people. To live out our vocation as His covenant people.
We will continue to talk about what this means for us. And for our hope! Midlife is a time for renewing hope, meditating on it, and re-orienting it to the promises of God so that it cannot be shaken. With hope we can find our courage and successfully pass through the transformations that the transitions in our life bring to us (podcast Season One is about transitions and transformation).
A note about our sources:
We draw on the insights of N.T. Wright when discussing the hopes of first century Jewish people and how they would understand New Testament scriptures written with them in mind. N. T. Wright is a scholar of the New Testament and world views of the first century Jewish people. When we want to better understand the New Testament, we need to be able to read it with the perspective of the people for whom it was written. Modern people are not steeped in the symbols, history, and understandings that the first century Jewish people took for granted.
Understanding more about what “the kingdom of God” meant to a Jewish person in the first century has helped us understand the words of Jesus and authors like Paul, what those words mean for us in God’s kingdom now, and have inspired us. Join us on the journey.
Have a blessed Holy Week.