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How did Jesus’ disciples imagine that he would “redeem Israel”?

Shortly after the death of Jesus, two from the band of his disciples are met by the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). He asks them what they are talking about, and, a little surprised by the ignorance of the fellow, they update him on what has just transpired in Jerusalem. It would be as though someone in the UK had missed the fact that the Queen died last week.

The prophet Jesus, from Nazareth, had been handed over for crucifixion by the chief priests and rulers, but his followers were hoping that he was the one who would “redeem Israel.” Jesus has to explain to them that it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory.” We know how the story goes from there.

So the disciples—presumably not just these two on the road to Emmaus—had expected that Jesus would redeem Israel. But how, if not by dying on a Roman cross?

The usual assumption is that the only alternative was violent rebellion against Roman after the pattern, perhaps, of the successful Maccabean revolt. But it seems to me rather unlikely that Jesus’ disciples—for all their obtuseness—imagined that their master was planning to foment an insurrection in the manner of Barabbas (Lk. 23:18-19). Two swords would hardly be enough (Lk. 22:38).

So was there a third option, somewhere between the two violent extremes of substitutionary atonement and a desperate war against Rome? What did the disciples think plan A was?

That the Christ should suffer and enter into his glory sounds to me like an allusion to Daniel 7:13-27 (cf. Lk. 24:6-7). This seems to be confirmed by the words of the angels to the women at the empty tomb: “Remember how he told you… that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Lk. 24:6–7). It is, therefore, a question of how Jesus would acquire “dominion and glory and a kingdom” and the obeisance of “all peoples, nations, and languages” (Dan. 7:14). Jesus would receive rule over Israel, among the nations, through the suffering inflicted on him—by apostate Israel and the foreign occupying force—as a figure equivalent to Daniel’s “one like a son of man.”

The Davidic kingship theme is firmly anticipated in the infancy stories (Lk. 1:27, 32, 69; 2:11) and in the response of the blind beggar shortly before the entry into Jerusalem: “Son of David, have mercy on me” (Lk. 18:39).

A large crowd of his disciples acclaims him as “the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” as they approach Jerusalem. This is a dramatic, carefully staged re-enactment of Zechariah’s prophecy of the arrival in Zion of Israel’s king, riding a beast of burden, “righteous and having salvation” (Lk. 19:28-40; Zech. 9:9-10). He can enter the city in all vulnerability because YHWH has disarmed the enemy.

Perhaps, then, the larger group of followers believed that they were genuinely celebrating the arrival of a peaceful king, whose authority and status as a son of David would soon—in the coming weeks and months—be acknowledged by the leadership and the people. On the strength of his teaching, his wisdom, his prophetic insight, the signs and wonder which he performed, the exercise of justice, the sheer force of character, he would win the city over.

Herod Antipas would be deposed, perhaps many of the current leadership would be cast into outer darkness, where there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it would essentially be a bloodless coup.

The model for Jesus as the one who would “redeem” (lytrousthai) Israel, when usually it is YHWH who redeems his people, is Moses, who was sent by God “as both ruler and redeemer (lutrōtēn) by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush,” who likewise performed “wonders and signs,” but who also was rejected by his people (Acts 7:35-40). Jesus was the “prophet like Moses.” The “wonders and signs” expression rather suggests, I think, that the equivalent to the plagues of Egypt was the miracles performed by Jesus, as evidence that the satanic force behind the political-religious crisis had been disarmed (Lk. 11:20-22; Acts 2:22).

This redeeming king would then lead his people towards righteousness and peace. There would be a mass movement of repentance and baptism, perhaps with an outpouring of the Spirit and a renewal of the covenant. The movement of reform started by John the Baptist would come to fulfilment. And so extraordinary would be the transformation that the Gentiles would sit up and take notice. The Roman governor would report back to Caesar that Judea was no longer the hotbed of radicalism and militancy that had necessitated Rome’s presence in the city. The garrison would be withdrawn. Weapons would be beaten into agricultural implements.

Diaspora Jews would return to Judea. A glorious new age for Israel would dawn.

The nations would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, bringing tribute, thronging the massive courtyard of the nations. The sacrificial system would continue according to the Law, now operated by a reformed priesthood. More importantly Herod’s spectacular and unshakable temple would now at last be known as a house of prayer for all nations, as it should always have been (cf. Lk. 19:45-46). Some gentiles, no doubt, would become priests.

King Jesus would take up residence in the royal palace, but he would live humbly among his subjects, accessible, compassionate, incorruptible, teaching his people, showing his people, how to walk in the ways of their God all the days of their life.

Things didn’t turn out that way, of course, and the disciples ended up with plan B, which took a little getting used to.

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