N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
The Exile of Second Temple Jews
Going back many books and many years, Wright has argued that for Second Temple period Jews, the exile that began with the Babylonian Captivity (“Exile,” to distinguish from many other exiles) was not ended when Ezra and Nehemiah led a group of Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and the city walls.
Daniel prophesied that although Jeremiah has prophesied an exile of 70 years (Dan 9:2), which is the time from the conquest of Jerusalem to Ezra and Nehemiah, the exile would in fact continue for 70 “weeks,” that is, 7 x 70 or 490 years (Dan 9:24), which approximate the time until Jesus. (There are plenty of commentaries that attempt all sorts of calculations. The approximate time is good enough for our purposes.)
The distinction is that the Exile involved not only physical relocation to Babylon but also the departure of God’s presence from the Temple and the gift of prophecy from the Jews. These things were not restored until Jesus came to Jerusalem and the Spirit was outpoured at Pentecost (although the prophesying of John the Baptist and others pointed to the outpouring that would soon come).
This understanding of Exile was tied up in an understanding of the blessings and curses of Lev and Deu. Deu especially written in the form of a vassalage treaty. In those days, treaties weren’t negotiated, they were imposed by the greater party on the lesser party. God entered into the Mosaic covenant with Israel, and like all vassalage treaties, the covenant includes a declaration of blessings that would be bestowed on the vassal if the treaty were kept and a declaration of curses that would be suffered if the treaty were violated.
In particular, Deu 28:1-14 is a listing of blessings for obedience. The balance of the chapter is a listing of curses for disobedience, and they are truly gruesome (not suitable for most children). Chapter 29 recites further curses.
Chapter 30, in a surprising twist, then speaks to what God will do after the curses come true.
(Deut. 30:1-3 ESV) “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.
Even though the horrors of the curses come true, God will stand ready to accept their repentance and restore their fortunes as his chosen people. (Lev 26 is a shorter version of the same elements.)
Second Temple period Jews believed this to be a Kingdom prophecy. Based on this promise, and many like it throughout the Prophets, the Jews looked for the coming of the Messiah (the Anointed or King) in the line of David, the establishment of the Kingdom (especially as prophesied by Daniel, that is, the kingdom that would destroy the empire of iron and clay, understood to be the Roman Empire), the outpouring of the Spirit, and God’s return to the Temple. Until these things happened, the Jews considered themselves to still be in Exile.
The solution to Exile, according to Deu 30, is repentance — and so when John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance and that the Kingdom was at hand, he fit the Deu 30 script perfectly. But notice that the solution is national repentance because the Exile is imposed by God on the nation of Israel. And so the Second Temple Jews thought in terms of community sin and community forgiveness. It’s not that they denied a personal relationship with God, but that a personal relationship was tied to the nation’s relationship. As long as all Israel was under the curses of Deu 28-29, the possibility of personal forgiveness was almost beside the point. After all, Deu 30:1-3 is speaking in terms of the nation returning to God.
The end of Exile would result in the outpouring of the Spirit as promised in —
(Deut. 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
— with the promise that God himself would change the hearts of the Jews so that they’d be obedient. This passage was read as pointing toward the new covenant promised by Jeremiah in Jer 39:39 ff, which Jesus and Paul both allude to —
(Jer. 31:31-34 ESV) 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not 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, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The Christian nation argument [JFG]
Many evangelicals believe that God has threatened to curse the United States because the U.S., as a nation, is in breach of many of the covenant promises made by Israel to God — not just in Deu 28-30 and Lev 26, but throughout the OT. I get Facebook posts all the time warning that the US is cursed by God because of its sin, sinful leaders, etc., all based on OT curses spoken to Israel.
And it’s true that Israel was a nation and the US is a nation, but that doesn’t make these passages speak to the US. Not even close. In fact, when the NT writers quote these passages, they routinely do so to speak to the Kingdom as a continuation of Israel. That is, the blessings and curses, if they apply at all, they apply to Christendom, not the US.
(Phil. 3:20-21 ESV) 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
In the NT view, we are citizens of the Kingdom, and the King of the Kingdom sits enthroned in heaven, which is where our citizenship is.
(Eph. 2:19-22 ESV) 19 So then you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens [to the Kingdom as the spiritual Israel], but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Paul’s point in Eph 1-2 is the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the one church by the blood of Jesus and the gospel. Together, they make a single nation.
(1 Pet. 2:9 ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Notice how “nation” is singular. We Christians, of whatever nationality, have been bound together by God into a single holy nation — language that originally applied to Israel and now applies to the church/Kingdom.
And we won’t gain God’s blessings by electing Christian officials and judges (not that this would be a bad or pointless thing). God’s commands are imposed on the church — and its members — and they are not obeyed through elected representatives. We have to obey them ourselves.
After all, if the USA is subject to these blessings and curses, then why not Norway? Or Russia? Or the Roman Empire of the First Century. They’re nations, too. And the early church did not lobby the Roman senate for more just laws or Christian judges. Rather, they obeyed God’s commands themselves and asked no one outside the church to do the same. Rather, they focused on being the church God called them to be, on helping those in need, and sharing the gospel. And they turned the world upside down.