The apocalyptic significance of Easter Week: suffering and kingdom

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In my previous post I had meant only to address certain questions about Jesus’ view of the “end” but thought it might be more illuminating to set Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching in Mark 13 in the context of the events of the last week in Jerusalem. There is only one story here, after all—not multiple disconnected stories about the temple, the atonement, the resurrection, and the second coming. So how does it all hang together?

So far the focus has been unwaveringly on the fate of the temple: the whole system is corrupt, the temple will be destroyed, the disciples will proclaim this spectacular act of divine intervention both to Israel and among the nations, and at the climax Jesus will be seen to have been installed by God as Israel’s king. What happens next is a continuation of this narrative, as we shall see. For no very good reason I’ve decided to work with Luke’s account.

Remembering affliction

Jesus has spent the last few days teaching in the temple, denouncing the corruption and hypocrisy of the Jerusalem leadership, claiming the right to judge and rule over Israel, predicting the destruction of both the city and the temple within the coming decades, and promising the public vindication of his persecuted followers. Despite the risks, he has considerable popular support (Lk. 21:37-38).

Fearing public unrest during the Passover festival, the chief priests and scribes take action to silence him. Satan, who earlier offered Jesus rule over the nations of the Roman empire (Lk. 4:6), now enters Judas, and the wheels of betrayal are set in motion (Lk. 22:3-6). It is important to keep in mind the geo-political scope of Satan’s intentions.

Luke no doubt wants his readers to think of Jesus as the “Passover lamb,” but this is not a sacrifice of atonement. The blood of the passover lamb was a “sign” of the presence of the Israelites, who had not sinned but were oppressed, and a memorial to their escape from the judgment that came upon the Egyptians (Exod. 12:12-13, 25-27). The bread that is broken is the “bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt” (Deut. 16:3).

Jesus asks his followers to remember his afflictions, but the critical point is that this re-interpreted Passover will be “fulfilled in the kingdom of God”; he will not again “drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Lk. 22:18). So the “story” told in the celebration of the meal is that Jesus, as the Son of Man betrayed through the collaboration of the leadership in Jerusalem with the Satanic power behind Rome, made a journey through affliction to kingdom.

The sifting of the disciples

But there is more to it than that. The word about the cup makes it clear that his followers are profoundly implicated in this unfolding story: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20; cf. Exod. 24:8). Despite the Passover setting, this new covenant will not be “like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke” (Jer. 31:32). The participation of his followers in the meal, therefore, is both an identification with his afflictions and an anticipation of the renewal of Israel after the war.

To those who stay with him in his trials, however, he also assigns a share in the kingdom that he will inherit as the suffering Son of Man; they will eat and drink with him in his kingdom and will “sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk. 22:28-30). This will be the restoration of the kingdom to Israel that the disciples ask about in Acts 1:6.

They will face intense opposition from the same Satanic alliance. Jesus warns Peter that Satan has demanded to sift the disciples (the “you” is plural), like wheat (Lk. 22:31). They will be severely tested in the years to come. In Amos 9:9-10 God commands and will “shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the earth. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.’” What Jesus means, presumably, is that during the coming judgment of Israel, the disciples will not fall to the ground and be lost. So Jesus prays that Peter’s faith will not fail when it is tested, and that he will strengthen his brothers (Lk. 22:32-34). The one who endures to the end of the crisis that will soon engulf Israel will be saved (Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Mk. 13:13).

Numbered among the transgressors

In a surprising change of policy, Jesus now tells his disciples that they should carry swords. Why? Because he must be “numbered with the transgressors” (Lk. 22:35-38). He is orchestrating another dramatic prophetic statement: when he is arrested he will have the appearance of being the leader of a band of “transgressors” or militants or rebels, he will look like one of the “lawless” threatening the security of Israel. The disciples unwittingly play along. One of them strikes the ear of a servant of the high priest, and Jesus realises that things have got out of hand: “No more of this!” But he asks the chief priests, temple officials, and elders of the people, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?” (Lk. 22:52). He keeps up the charade.

He goes out to the Mount of Olives and prays that he will not have to drink the cup of God’s wrath against his people. Here we have the kernel of a limited doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Jesus has self-consciously identified himself with the “transgressors” who will take up the sword against Rome and by their recklessness bring upon the nation the catastrophe of the war. He will suffer precisely the degradation and excruciating pain of death on a Roman cross that thousands of Jews were to suffer in the course of the war.

In his trial before the Jewish council he refuses to say whether he is the Christ, but he affirms that the Son of Man who is betrayed will be “seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Lk. 22:69). The allusion to Psalm 110:1 evokes a narrative of kingdom: ‘The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies!’ (Ps. 110:1-2). This is the supreme affront to his interrogators: not only will this unrighteous generation see the destruction of the temple, they will also see the Son of Man, whose voice they seek to silence, coming with the clouds of heaven and seated at the right hand of God to judge and rule in the midst of his enemies (cf. Lk. 21:27).

So they take him to Pilate and accuse him of inciting sedition: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Lk. 23:2). Again, as Jesus predicted, he is being numbered among the transgressors. It is in keeping with this emphasis on his mistaken identity that he is condemned to death in the place of Barabbas, “a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder” (Lk. 23:18-25).

As he is led away to be crucified, Jesus speaks to the women mourning and lamenting for him:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Lk. 23:28–31)

This is what is at stake. This is what Luke’s story is all about. Jesus will suffer Israel’s punishment, but the punishment of Israel when it comes will be far worse. It is the Jews who will call on the mountains and hills in vain to cover them. Israel has sinned; God will gather the nations against them, and war will overtake the unjust (Hos. 10:8-10).

Today you will be with me in paradise

Jesus is crucified—another piece of shocking political theatre, staged this time by Rome—as a failed claimant to the throne of Israel, unable to save himself let alone his people (Lk. 23:3, 35-38). One of the malefactors killed alongside him appears to have understood something of the strange possibilities latent in these events, and asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom.

The wretched fellow is assured that he will soon be with Jesus “in paradise” (Lk. 23:43), which probably, in the first place, draws on a martyr theology: the one who conquers death will “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).

In the context of Luke’s Gospel, however, there may also be the thought that this wrongdoer is another outsider who will be included in righteous Israel in extremis. He is like the wayward son who is reconciled to his father Abraham. He is like the beggar Lazarus who is carried to the bosom of Abraham after his death. He is like penitent tax collector Zacchaeus, who is “also a son of Abraham.” Only, in this violent climax to the story, the outsider is the victim of violence, and participation in the future life of the supreme martyr becomes the fitting redemptive idiom.

Finally, Jesus is buried by a “righteous” member of the Jewish council, perhaps one of the few, who was “looking for the kingdom of God”—the redemption of Jerusalem, the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (Lk. 23:50-51; cf. 2:38; Acts 1:6; 3:21).

So what is the meaning of Easter to this point according to Luke? Jesus is the apocalyptically minded prophet warning his people that national catastrophe is inevitable if they do not repent of their evil ways. His prophetic dramatisations of the impending judgment and renewal of Israel (entry into Jerusalem, protest in the temple, cursing of the fig tree, Passover meal) take a dangerous turn when he instructs his followers to acquire swords and act out armed revolt in order that he may be numbered among the transgressors—in order that, as Paul has it, he may appear to Israel “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3).

He is not, at this point in the early theologising of the story, taking on himself the sin of the world, but he is certainly making himself available as an innocent place-holder for Jews who would rise up in revolt, or who would find themselves helplessly sucked into revolt, against Rome. Well, more than that—he puts himself forward as the inevitable king of sinful Israel, and at least one wretched wrongdoer subscribes to his future kingdom.

Edwin | Fri, 04/15/2022 - 04:33 | Permalink

What is the main “corruptions” Jesus is denouncing of the leadership and the system? Is it legalism? I have been trying to get to the point where I have my aha moment in this reframing of the biblical story and what it would mean for Jesus’s message of judgement to be vindicated in his ressurection. Does it mean all his denounciations were backed by God and his moral teachings for following God rightly, without corruption, would now be authoritative, thus silencing the debates between the competing Jewish traditions? I guess I’m attempting to picture if today, a particular Christian leader took some particular stance and denounced the Church system on some particulars (lets say for fun: colonization and cultural genocide and gay hating and materialism and ecocide and so on and so forth) and then was assasinated and resurrected and then ascended to the heavenly throne, our take away would be, ya, I guess we really do need to start from the ground up, do away with all those bits and corruption and bad behaviour that this martyred person was going on about. Turns out they were right about all that. So let’s repent of these particular issues.

Or…. what is the point of the vindication if not to give legs to the particular substance of repentance that was preached “Repent the Kingdom at hand”? Is that the central point of Jesus getting crowned and kinged: to authorize his ethics or have I missed the the forest for the weeds?