The small but amazing world of Jesus of Nazareth
The synoptic Gospels tell a story which for the most part has no direct significance for the bulk of humanity. It is a Jewish story; and in an important sense these writings are better seen as a coda to the Old Testament than as an overture to the New. Taken on their own terms, the Gospels present the argument that the grand religious experiment of the Mosaic covenant reached its culmination in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Simply put, in the manner of the Old Testament prophets Jesus set before the nation, which regarded itself as a unique ‘people of God’, an ultimate choice: a wide gate that would lead to destruction, or a narrow gate that would lead to life (Matt.7:13-14). It is debatable whether the writers of the New Testament show any direct knowledge of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70; but it is clear that Jesus expected the judgment upon Israel to be realized through a catastrophe of this nature. The gate which leads to life, on the other hand, was in some sense Jesus himself, who called men and women to follow him, who would be ‘king of the Jews’ - a kingship that would radically redefine what it meant to belong to the people of the god whom the Jews called YHWH.
In all of this, however, Jesus hardly looks beyond either the boundaries of Israel or the future horizon of the historical crisis. He is Israel’s Messiah. To understand the Gospels properly we must first strip away all that we have come to know about the universal faith which takes Jesus as its cornerstone. We must not read the Gospels as though they were addressed to us, even though the shadowy figures who have been given credit for writing them certainly meant these accounts to be read by Gentiles as well as Jews. We must, to the limited extent open to us, imagine ourselves to be Jews living in Palestine under Roman occupation during the early decades of the first century, entirely preoccupied with our own destiny.
The narrowness and exclusivism of Jesus’ ministry are unmistakable. The chief theme of the nativity stories is that he would be ‘king of the Jews’, the one who would ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matt.1:21; cf. Luke 2:11). When the devout old man Simeon, who ‘was waiting for the consolation of Israel’, came across Joseph and Mary in the Temple, he prophesied: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel…’ (Luke 2:34). The prophetess Anna ‘gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2:38). There is nothing in this of the universal theme of God becoming flesh: the significance of the unnatural aspect of Jesus’ birth is not that he was God incarnate but that he was Israel’s Messiah.
The Jewishness not just of the man Jesus but of his whole mission also becomes apparent as soon as we disburden ourselves of our Christian consciousness. His baptism was an identification with repentant Israel. Issues relating to the significance and purpose of the Jewish law dominated his teaching. His healing ministry was confined quite deliberately to Israel. He told a desperate Canaanite woman who begged him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,’ and argued that it was not right to ‘take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs’ (Matt.15:24, 26). Impressed by her faith he restored the girl, and this may anticipate later developments; but we cannot miss the point that Jesus imposed strict boundaries to his ministry. ‘Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans,’ he instructed the twelve when he sent them out. ‘Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel’ (Matt.10:5-6). If later they are ‘brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles’ (v.18), that will be a consequence of their mission to Israel, not because they have been preaching to the Gentiles. We must take the historical and geographical constraints seriously when Jesus solemnly says, ‘I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (v.23). The message they are to preach is that ‘the kingdom of heaven is near’ (v.7); and this must be understood fundamentally as a matter of Jewish concern. We should not attempt to make Israel a world in microcosm.
The horizon of the future is also limited: Jesus barely looks beyond the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the inauguration of a mission beyond the borders of Israel. What he foresees in the Olivet discourse is not the end of the world but the end of an age defined by worship in the temple in Jerusalem - and with that the end of the hope that salvation will emanate from Zion. This rather unorthodox contention will have to be defended at some point, but for now we may outline the course of events envisaged. During a period of mounting turmoil the followers of Jesus will face opposition and persecution from the Jews (Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-19; Matt.24:9-13). God’s judgment upon Israel will be executed through the agency of the Roman army, who will besiege the city (Luke 21:20), then desecrate and destroy the temple (Mark 13:14; Matt.24:15). At this point believers in Judea are urged to flee to the mountains while they have the chance (Mark 13:14-16; Luke 21:21-22; Matt.24:16-18); they should not allow themselves to be deceived by false messiahs and prophets who hold at the hope of a spurious salvation (Mark 13:21-22; Matt.24:23-24). In conjunction with these events the Son of man will be revealed, not as a localized presence (Matt.24:26), but among the nations, through the proclamation of the gospel (Matt.24:14): many will recognize that the one who was pierced has received glory and sovereignty from God (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27; Matt.24:30). As a result a new people will be gathered from the ends of the earth (Mark 13:27; Matt.24:31). All this will take place, Jesus makes quite clear, within a generation (Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32; Matt.24:34).
Jesus’ disciples are differentiated not from unbelievers but from the Gentiles (Matt.5:47; 6:7, 32; 18:17; 20:25-26; cf. Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25). In keeping with Old Testament ideas of the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to Zion, the Gentiles appear as spectators, witnesses to the glory of Israel’s Messiah; the magi come from the East to pay homage. Simeon sees in Jesus the salvation which God ‘has prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:30-31). The Gentiles may in various ways benefit from the coming of Jesus, but this is still Israel’s salvation - it is ‘for glory to your people Israel’ (v.32). This is almost entirely Israel-centred. Prior to the resurrection the idea of a Gentile church existed at best only on the periphery of Jesus’ thinking: the gospel would be preached to all nations, but without any clear objective in view (Mark 13:10; 14:9; Matt.24:14). It was not immediately obvious to the disciples after the resurrection that they should be preaching the gospel to Gentiles.