N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 12 (First Century Jews in Exile)

dayrevolutionbegan

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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 12 (First Century Jews in Exile)

  1. Mark says:

    Those exiled Jews would likely have heard the book of Ester and Torah’s account of the exodus every year reminding them of what God did for them. Then they would have been told to go and do for others, also teaching them as was commanded by the Torah.

  2. As for the last part of your essay, I think we would do well to look at the judgment pronounced on non-covenant nations. That is, look to see why Egypt and Assyria and Babylon were judged. That’s much more analogous to God’s relationship with the United States.

  3. As for the last part of your essay, I think we do better to look at the judgment God pronounced on other nations, not Israel and Judah. That is, his relationship with non-covenant nations like Assyria and Babylon would correspond more precisely to his relationship with a nation like the United States. There are standards of judgment, but they don’t have to do with fulfilling the Torah or not.

  4. JohnF says:

    (insert sarcasm font) Do you dare to try to tell me that the USA (God, country, guns) is NOT in covenant relationship with God — special among the nations? (remove sarcasm font)? And yet, many saw especially in the 1830’s and 1840’s a great coming Christian millennial reign beginning in the USA (Alexander Campbell among them). Stil, the USA was almost uniquely formed among the nations on Christian principles. Essentially all of the state constitutions acknowledge God and many acknowledge Christ as Savior. In spite of proclamations to the contrary, Jews and Muslims were NOT significant in the founding of this nation (note to self — Do note get political on this blog site.).

  5. Dwight says:

    Unfortunately the leaders of the US never formed a covenant with God, unless there are some secret papers somewhere. There is a difference in seeing God’s hand in the direction of something and God having a direct relationship with it.
    In regards to the exile, even when the Jews returned to their land it was far from their land. They had limited freedom within the context of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans up to the time of Jesus, which is why there is a push by the Zionist and others to recreate the nation of Israel as before. Many don’t believe that the exile is over until their nation is restored to it former glory and the people are gathered.

  6. Ellen Williams says:

    There may have been Christian ideas and principles involved in the constitutions of the US, but the founding fathers were protective of religious freedom, which can only be protected by allowing other religions to exist here. Freedom must be for everyone. Jesus went outside the Jewish cultural norms in holding up a Samaritan as an example of a loving neighbor, by going into Samaritan territory and speaking to a lone woman at a well (his disciples wouldn’t even approach her), and by reminding his fellow Jews that Elisha healed no Israelites but just a Syrian named Naaman. That little speech nearly got him thrown over a cliff. None of those people were of the same religion as Jesus. They were considered “dogs” by the Jews. Jesus shows a profound ability to coexist with people of other religions.

  7. Gary says:

    America was not founded on Christian principles at least in any way that readers of One in Jesus today would call Christian. If we had to name a religion of our founding fathers it would be Deism. The last decades of the 1700’s were probably the least religious in our nation’s history. I’ve read that fewer Americans, percentage wise, were churched then than are today. James DeForest Murch wrote a fascinating description of the low ebb of American Christianity in the late 18th century in the foreword to his book Christians Only. This malaise of American Christianity was the background that made the explosive fervor of the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century all the more remarkable. Our own roots in the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 were very much a part of that reawakening of Christian faith.

  8. Gary says:

    While I’m thankful to be an American and see a number of good qualities in our nation and its people I’ve never understood the reasoning that the US has some kind of special standing or status with God that makes us unique. For all of the wonderful things about our country today we came into being in rebellion against our established government. That was a direct violation of Romans 13 for Christians. After that we built our nation on the twin foundations of the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. While no one now living is personally responsible for those evils they remain the foundation of our nation. The very symbols of our country in the Capitol and White House were constructed with slave labor. The land we live on was taken through a process of ethnic cleansing. It’s hardly a history to brag about.

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    It has also been proven that the Christian nation, church/kingdom can not be extinguished by any nation or body of government which rules over them. Why not. Because the Christian nation is within the members of the nation. It cannot be located or identified by any government, the government can only kill those which it can flush out of safety. Because it is not even in this world.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    JohnF,

    Just some historical facts.

    1. Many states had constitutions that protect religious liberty but many also favored a particular religious party. The First Amendment did not apply to the states until after the Civil War with the enactment of the 14th Amendment. Hence, some subsidized particular denominations (had “established” churches). Some banned Catholics or Jews from holding office.

    2. Some states followed the principles of John Locke’s letter on religious toleration — which argued against toleration of Papism (Catholicism). Some states required someone to be a Christian or not a Catholic etc. to hold state office. It was a mishmash for decades.

    3. Deism was the fashion in France — leading to atheism being the official state religion of France after the French Revolution. Christianity was essentially banned — and US intellectuals were often very sympathetic to the French — who’d helped us win the Revolutionary War and were producing some of the world’s greatest intellectuals (as was Britain, but memories of the War were still fresh).

    4. The Constitution says nothing of God or Christianity. Very odd if Christianity was to be the official state religion.

    5. The Declaration of Independence speaks of the Creator and natural law — not God and special revelation. Jefferson was a big-time Francophile and no fan of orthodox Christianity.

    6. John Adams was a devout Christian. But he signed the treaty of Tripoli, which declares, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims], — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

    So Adams was a critical negotiator of the Declaration of Independence and the second president of the US after serving two terms as VP under Washington.

    I don’t know what is meant by the phrase “Christian nation” much less why we are so obsessed with claiming the USA is a Christian nation “founded on Christian principles.” It was founded on Enlightenment principles of government neutrality toward religion. See John Locke’s Letter on Religious Toleration — a document that highly influenced the Founders of this country.

    Whatever you conclude about “Christian nation” status (and I’m not really interested in the debate), the US is not Israel and is not the Kingdom. It is a nation-state and hence a principality or power in the eyes of the NT writers. It is charged by God with certain responsibilities, but it is not Israel or the Kingdom of Heaven. Nor does the Bible somehow place the US in a particularly privileged position.

    The Post-Millennial speculations of Campbell and many other 19th Century Americans are all interesting but hardly have much to do with what the drafters of the Constitution intended (see the Federalist Papers for that one) or even what the Bible says. I’m no Post-Millennialist (and we’ll cover that topic once again as we get to Wright’s last couple of chapters.)

    PS — There are countless European nations explicitly formed as Christian nations. Study the history of Germany and you’ll find that Luther made sure of that. I mean, Europe was once nearly 100% Christian and every European nation considered itself a Christian nation — and the king to rule by divine right. That all changed, of course, but some of it’s still true. Some European nations still collect taxes to fund their preferred denomination. The Lutheran Church was supported by German tax dollars for years under Hitler! And this empowered Hitler to silence most dissent from the Christians.

    After France chose atheism as its state religion, it didn’t work out very well, and so they re-legalized Catholicism. I could go on. The fact is that many European nations have a far stronger claim to be “Christian nations” than the US, and yet Christianity is generally much stronger in the US. And there’s a lesson in there for us.

  11. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    You make a fair point. But to some extent, God’s dealings with Israel’s neighbors were about protecting or punishing Israel. I’m no expert, but take Jonah and Nineveh. Jonah did not threaten them with hell or promise them heaven. He threatened them with overthrow — an earthly, political, power punishment for people who thought in those terms. Why? Well, if you read Jonah with Nahum, Assyria was a brutal, cruel people who often threatened God’s people. I think God had Jonah call Assyria to repentance to give Judah a chance to repent — or else Assyria would have destroyed them as they destroyed the Northern Kingdom — but my knowledge of this stuff is pretty spotty. By making Assyria more quiescent, Judah had time to repent and God had time to give power to Babylon – which would conquer Jerusalem but not destroy them as a people, culture, and religion. God needed Assyria to chill, and so Jonah served God’s purposes for Israel.

    Someone may well point out a case where God dealt with other nations with no concern for Israel. It’s interesting and I don’t know the answer.

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