Why the early church failed to fulfil the mission of Jesus

Read time: 5 minutes

How, Michael Bird asks, did the early church carry forward “Jesus’s appropriation of Israel’s sacred traditions about the restoration of Israel and the inclusion of the nations in God’s saving purposes”?

It’s a good question. If Jesus was a “prophet of Jewish restoration eschatology”, whose overriding—if not, exclusive objective—was the restoration of first century Israel, did his followers think that it was their responsibility to continue this mission after his death? If yes, how did they go about doing so? How did it work out? Did they succeed? Fail? Or did someone move the goalposts?

Bird turns to Luke-Acts, in the first place, for the answer. From the great expansive psalms of eschatological hope in the birth stories to the curt exchange between the disciples and the risen Jesus about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6 Luke tells the story of the transformation of Jewish expectation.

This is good succinct exposition. Bird is an excellent proponent of this sort of Jewish-historical reading of the New Testament.

The resurrection of Jesus was not an isolated event, he argues. It required, “in whatever timespan, Israel’s full rescue as the next item on the divine agenda.” On the one hand, the restoration of Israel was a metaphorical resurrection (cf. Hos. 6:1-3; Is. 26:16-19; Ezek. 37). On the other, it would entail a literal resurrection of Israel’s dead (cf. Dan. 12:1-2; Pss. Sol. 3:11-12). Peter announces a future “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). At the Jerusalem Council the inclusion of Gentiles is justified by reference to a passage in the prophets which speaks of the inclusion of Gentiles “within or beside a renewed Israel” (Acts 15:13-18; cf. Amos 9:11-12).

But, of course, it didn’t really work out that way. Israel was not renewed. So how does the Christian interpreter deal with this?

At some point the story about the restoration of Israel breaks down, the inherently Jewish eschatological process collapses, and a wholly non-Jewish people takes over the vineyard.

Bird suggests that, as Luke sees it, “Israel’s hopes for redemption, rescue, and restoration had come to fruition, at least embryonically, through Jesus.” The evidence was in the exaltation of Jesus, the offer of forgiveness, and the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

These blessings were more than portents of what was to come. The “narrative of Jesus as Israel’s kingdom-bringer” and the realisation of Israel’s restoration in his resurrection meant in effect that the church “now had the task [of] carrying forward the story of Israel, to be Israel-for-the-sake-of-the-world”. By becoming Jesus-like the church was to be restored Israel as a light to the nations.

The early church, in other words, consciously saw itself as what Israel’s new exodus looked like when it took root among the Jews and Gentiles in the eastern Mediterranean who believed and behaved in ways that meant that God’s kingdom had come in the person of Jesus.

I agree that the crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus anticipated the crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation of Israel, but in this reconstruction I think Bird has let the future outcome slip too easily through his fingers. What is to come is first relativised (“such blessings were more than advance notice of the end or a foretaste of good things still to come”), then passed over altogether.

I think that Bird’s realised eschatology stands the New Testament on its head. The New Testament is all about future outcomes.

Notice that Bird’s opening statement of Jesus’ mission added to the restoration of Israel the “inclusion of the nations in God’s saving purposes”. This introduces at a very early stage in the argument the possibility that a multinational church would supersede restored national Israel. That is not at all evident from the Synoptic Gospels and the early chapters of Acts.

The “narrative of Jesus as Israel’s kingdom-bringer” remains firmly oriented towards a political-religious crisis in a foreseeable future, within the lifetime of the current wicked and adulterous generation of Jews (cf. Acts 2:40). Jesus’ response to Caiaphas must be definitive for our understanding of his mission: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). He is not talking about the resurrection.

The vision of the parousia of the Son of Man would be fulfilled when the wicked tenants of the vineyard suffered a “miserable death” and management was handed over to a righteous people, who would produce good fruit (Matt. 21:40-41). Jesus has been installed as Israel’s future king at the right hand of the Father, but he must wait until his enemies have been put under his feet. From the historical perspective of the “prophet of eschatological restoration” who stood before the Jewish Council this meant the catastrophic punishment of those who refused to heed the call to repentance.

This future fulfilment cannot be written out of the narrative of Israel’s restoration just for the sake of a smoother “Christian” reading of the New Testament. There is, I think, a fundamental dislocation in the narrative. At some point the story about the restoration of Israel breaks down, the inherently Jewish eschatological process collapses, and a wholly non-Jewish people takes over the vineyard. The question is at what point.

Bird has made the resurrection of Jesus the decisive moment of transition, but I think that this contradicts the overwhelmingly apocalyptic shape of New Testament hope. The inclusion of Gentiles in the communities of renewed Israel across the Greek-Roman oikoumenē certainly led to the ambitious expansion of the hope: Jesus would be revealed in the future first as judge and ruler of Israel, then as judge and ruler of the nations.

But I think that the restoration of national Israel remained central to this story at least until the writing of Romans 9-11, when Paul began to entertain the possibility that his people would not repent, either before or after the catastrophic “punishment” of a war against Rome.

The dislocation came about, therefore, for entirely historical reasons—“all Israel” did not repent, did not confess Jesus as Lord and Christ, and so was not saved. The early church, through no fault of its own, did not fulfil the mission of Jesus. Israel was not restored.

Samuel Conner | Thu, 02/06/2020 - 17:33 | Permalink

Perhaps a significant part of the mission of the Apostles (“going through the towns of Israel before the coming of the son of man”) was to recruit further people away from the militant nationalist tendencies that were leading the nation toward disaster (“unless you repent, you will likewise perish”; Lk 13:1-3).

If that was a significant part of the mission, it’s not clear to me that they failed (though the “success”, such as it was, was much smaller than one would have preferred). Faith remained “in the land” at the time of the coming of the son of man. The church fled Jerusalem at the approach of the armies of Rome and so escaped the calamity. Evidently the “readers” of the written traditions of Jesus’ warnings did indeed “understand”.

I have read that Jewish Jesus-followers in the land were not treated well by their countrymen in the run-up to and the actual event of the second war (132-135); evidently the memory of their non-participation in the first war was regarded as evidence of disloyalty to the people or the religion.

If Jesus’ followers among Israel were still pursuing a “way of peace” a hundred years after his death, in spite of ongoing persecution, that looks pretty good to me. Was it a “failure” or are our expectations of what “success” ought to have been unreasonable?

@Samuel Conner:

All good thoughts. You’re ranging well beyond the scope of the New Testament narrative, obviously, but it’s good to bring real historical possibilities into view.

I agree that there has to be a degree of historical plausibility to the interpretation of biblical prophecy, but if Jesus allowed his followers to hope for a restoration of Israel, when they would sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes, surely we have to factor into the ongoing story a significant failure of hope—even if over time it was transmuted into something else.

@Andrew Perriman:

This may be controversial, but it appears to me that Jesus allowed his followers (and people beyond the identified “disciples”) to project their hopes onto him. Sometimes he slapped them down (Lk 9:54-55) but it seems that often enough he allowed people to go on thinking what they were thinking that it was possible for disciples to think, prior to the crucifixion, that Jesus was their hoped-for military/political leader against the pagan occupiers (Lk 24:21).

As you know, I suspect that there was “design” behind this permissive posture toward the people’s hopes. I suspect that Israel was saved from military disaster for a generation by the dashing of these elevated hopes in the crucifixion of the hoped-for redeemer king at the hands of Israel’s enemies.