At this point, I want to introduce several massive questions that drove me to write this whole series:
If Jesus and his disciples were a Jewish movement similar to other Jewish movements of their day, why did they, unlike the others, move beyond Israel with their message?
The necessary follow-up question is why would anyone outside of the Jewish context believe them and choose to follow this Jesus?
If Jesus appeared to be a failed messiah in light of the crucifixion, what happened that convinced his disciples otherwise? Stated differently, what caused them to argue Jesus succeeded despite all the evidence otherwise?
Finally, why would an empire who had no problem (for the most part) with various religious expressions, from Judaism to worship of other indigenous gods, kill people who followed Jesus, especially under the accusation of being atheist?
To answer these questions, we must travel quickly through part of the Gospel According to Matthew. This will show poignantly how Jesus and the disciples believed that the resurrection came from the G-d of the whole world not just the G-d of the Judeans.
Since we spent a lot of time talking about Daniel, we should look closely at the times when Jesus references this powerful book. In Matthew, Jesus quotes Daniel 7.13 dead center of chapters 23-25 right after he combated the Sadducees on the resurrection and the Pharisees on the authority of David. In these chapters of Matthew Jesus strongly
reprimands the Pharisaic leaders (23.1-36); he mourns for Jerusalem because of their complicity in killing prophets (23.37-39); he predicts the end of the temple and its hold on the people (24.1-2); he talks about the “end of the age” in which nations will battle, earthquakes and famines will oppress, and anyone who preaches the message of Jesus will be persecuted (24.3-14); and he proceeds to mention Daniel by name as he warns against false messiahs arising after the destruction of Jerusalem (24.15-28). In Matthew 24.30 Jesus quotes Daniel 7.13 in the middle of the narrative unit, chs. 23-25, which starts with “Then Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples” and ends with “When Jesus had finished saying all these things”. After the “Son of Man” quote from Daniel, Jesus launches into a list of parables that build on one another. The first tells us to watch for all these things to happen (24.32-35); the next commands us to pay attention (24.36-44); another tells us to be hard at work while we wait (24.45-51); the following one, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, expands on the need to be watchful (25.1-13); the next parable is the notoriously misinterpreted Parable of the Talents, in which despite Jesus’ commands to pay attention, he also demands that “watchfulness” not be our only activity (25.14-30); and finally, the whole section arrives with the sheep and the goats (25.31-46).
Through the years, Bible scholars subjected these chapters to the most ludicrous theories. The most popular theory claims Jesus thought the end of the world would come within the lifetime of his followers. Of course, the notion that Matthew 24.3-35 spelled out actual events that would signify the end of the world does not take the Bible nor the time very seriously. Apocalyptic books were not written to deal with what was going to happen; they were written in order to make clear what was happening. When Jesus quotes the apocalyptic book of Daniel, he does not intend to signify what would happen in the future. He spoke about how to deal with the current situation. Of course, put this in the context of Jesus’ social situation in which multiple groups offered multiple ways to deal with Israel’s current dilemma, and suddenly, Jesus’ apocalyptic talk actually seems reasonable. Put it in a list of exhortations and parables concerning real, actual people, and the whole discourse finally seems to make some sense.
Jesus foresaw the destruction of the Jewish elite. Instead of identifying the destruction of the religious and political elite as the work of the pagan rulers, he identified G-d’s involvement in bringing down the powerful. He does this by speaking of a very real historical event: The First Jewish War during which time Rome destroyed the temple. Nonetheless, if we utilize the popular theory that Jesus expected the end of the world to arrive directly after the destruction of the temple, this story makes no sense. Matthew was written well after the temple’s destruction. What good is it to show Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction if he also predicted a failed apocalypse directly afterward?
As the Sermon on the Mount and really the whole rest of the Book of Matthew show us, Jesus instructs people on how to follow G-d. Jesus seems deeply concerned with the way people live. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats very clearly identifies Jesus as this type of person. Why would Matthew write an ethical exhortation against Judean leaders followed by an esoteric prediction of the end of the world (a prediction Jesus is, allegedly, mistaken about, and the author of Matthew knows he is mistaken about) followed by several ethical exhortations dealing with the “end times”? Read through the lens of Daniel’s apocalyptic vision as a way to deal with foreign occupation makes the entire passage logical. Jesus rips apart the Judean leaders and their way of dealing with the empire. He proceeds to explain in Daniel’s terminology how empires fall, and he exhorts his followers to listen to his teachings as the true way to deal with foreign occupation. Jesus gave his followers a way to deal with the current imperial crisis and a way to deal with all subsequent modes of imperialism. We, his followers, should be alert to live in his ways because the empire could fall at any moment.
The centrality of Daniel to this section should indicate something very important to us. First, it indicates Daniel’s message, one in which G-d destroys the empires and vindicates the righteous, as central to Jesus’ message. Second, it implicates G-d as ruler over the whole world. This becomes ultimately clear in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Much ink and Christian ethical anxiety has been spilled over the words in this passage. What almost no one notices (at least I have never heard anyone mention this) is the juxtaposition of it against other Jewish beliefs about the ultimate fate of everyone. The Jewish groups who believed in the resurrection would say “the nations” gathered before the “Son of Man” in v. 32 would be the damned ones. Those Judeans who followed G-d properly in spite of “the nations” would be the vindicated (whether they be Pharisees or Essenes or whomever). This parable pays no attention to ethnic identity. It simply separates those who love the dispossessed from those who treat others with indifference. We must hear the radical message in this text. No longer is resurrection based on ancestral heritage, proper Torah observance, or separation from the world. Instead, G-d will vindicate whoever responds to the injustice of empire with the hope of practical kindness.
Of course, why should or why would anyone believe this? What possibly could motivate anyone to believe this message? How can the teachings of Jesus really be better than the revolution of Judas Maccabeus? The proof is too big to believe.