The project I am working through concerning the New Testament is interconnected, but can be summarized by appeal to Temple, exile, and holiness. These are essentially the three things which intertestimental Israel fretted over, mused upon, and argued about right up to the time of Christ. Without understanding these three things we will totally misunderstand what Jesus is doing in His earthly ministry – because He was addressing these three issues with which Israel wrestled.
Temple. As more and more scholars are realizing, we can’t understand Jesus without understanding how centrally important the Temple was for Israel (on this, I recommend Perrin, Jesus the Temple). Not merely for worship, but for Israel’s economic life as well, the Temple was the beating heart of Israel’s hopes, expectations, and dreams (I recommend Stevens, Temples, Tithes and Taxes). The Temple was where God dwelt with man, the place of refuge, the rock of their salvation, the place of “God-with-us.” It was in a very real sense, God’s “house,” and the best definition of priest I have ever seen is that they are “butlers.” They sacrifice animals and cut them up and cook them on the altar for pleasing food for God, tidy up around the house, trim the lamps, change the food, manage the estate.
God’s presence was known to be in the Temple because of the glory that dwelt there. God’s “portable throne” was known as the Glory-Cloud, the flaming chariot that takes Elijah into heaven, the strange wheeled machine of Ezekiel’s vision, the pillar of cloud and flame that led Israel across the desert. This pillar of fire and smoke descended to dwell in the Tabernacle: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting [tabernacle], and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle,” (Ex. 40:34-35). When the Temple is finally completed, the same thing occurs: “And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of Yahweh, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of Yahweh filled the house of the Lord,” (1 Kings 8:10-11).
Then Israel sinned and was finally carried off into exile. In the reign of Cyrus they were permitted to return and begin rebuilding (in the events that take place during the books of Ezra and Nehemiah). When the foundation for the Temple was laid and the people gathered to rejoice, it is shocking that God does not once again descend. Instead, there is deafening silence. No fire from heaven. No cloud of glory driving the priests out.
And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised Yahweh, because the foundation of the house of Yahweh was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping. (Ezra 3:11-13)
Even when the whole Temple is finished and the first sacrifices are offered to Yahweh, still no glory-cloud (Ezra 7:16-18). Still no “God-with-us.”
Exile. The failure of God to descend in cloud and flame and fill the Temple became a foundational issue with which Israel wrestled. Hadn’t God promised that when the exiles came home, Zion would be restored and the faithful elevated over the nations? Why then had He failed to appear? The conclusion of the post-exile Jews in the period between the close of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus was that Israel must somehow still be in exile (on this, see Wright, The New Testament and the People of God). They were in the land, so there was an incomplete restoration of the promises of Yahweh, but somehow Israel was still in what scholars have called “spiritual exile.” That is, though Israel had returned to the land and rebuilt the Temple, they remained under the dominion of the Gentiles and God still had not come to dwell among them in the way He had promised He would. To make matters worse, the Temple became controlled by the corrupt Herods, who appointed their own cronies to the priesthood.
Holiness. Israel’s conclusion that they were still in exile became an obsession, and they sought for ways to remedy the situation. Their conclusion was that somehow they, Israel, weren’t holy enough. The only reason God ever left the Temple was because of Israel’s sin. Thus, if they found what the sin was, they could remedy it and God would finally end the continuing exile and usher in the Messianic age of the Kingdom. Their emphasis fell on purity laws and the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Thus the Pharisees were born (Ezra was probably the first Pharisee), whose healthy zeal for God and righteous living soon degenerated into extreme forms of purity, to make sure it was extra clear they would not be contaminated by contact with anything unclean or Gentiles, multiplying the complexity and hardness of the law. Another sect, known as the Essenes, concluded that everyone in Israel was corrupt save they themselves, and retreated into the hills and cave to be “pure” by themselves. Nothing seemed to work.
Into this world came Jesus, the true Messiah. But by the time He appears on the scene, Israel has corrupted its expectation of the Kingdom, inverted the law, and distorted its image of the Messianic figure. In His ministry, Jesus takes steps to correct each of these issues.
Jesus is the Temple. He begins His ministry by announcing the arrival of the Kingdom. Once He has everyone’s attention, He climbs a mountain like Moses on Sinai and delivers His famed Sermon on the Mount, and calls into being a New Israel, comprised of all those who respond to His words and follow Him. This New Israel is gathered around His Body, which is the New Temple (I have argued that this is how we must understand the Sermon on the Mount in detail here). In this way, He corrects Israel’s expectation that the eternal Temple which God promised He would build was the physical Temple of wood and stone. Israel should have known better. Even in the Old Testament it was apparent the true Temple symbolized the human person, and that the true Temple would be comprised of the faithful themselves.
Jesus ends the exile. Since Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and the True Temple himself, He likewise announces that the exile is at an end. God is finally going to do what He had promised to do long ago in the person of Jesus, and restore the People of God. But there was a catch. It was this New Israel that would be vindicated as the faithful, not ethnic Israel. In this way, Jesus reappropriates Israel’s promises to address this faithful remnant from within ethnic Israel (a remnant soon to include the remnant of believers from among the Gentiles also). Suddenly Israel’s story gets turned upside down. As Jesus and the apostles begin to apply the Old Testament to this new situation, they constantly subvert Israel’s understand of where they stood. Israel saw itself as Abel, not Cain, Jacob and not Esau, Isaac and not Ishmael, the faithful few who wanted to take the promised land instead of the faithless who refused and were destroyed in the wilderness. As Jesus and Peter and Paul and James and the others begin re-telling Israel’s story, suddenly ethnic Israel finds herself recast as Cain, not Abel, Esau and not Jacob, Lot instead of Abraham, Ishmael instead of Isaac, the unfaithful who rebelled in the wilderness and not the faithful Caleb.
Jesus and holiness. Likewise, Jesus corrects Israel’s understanding of her holiness. Israel’s focus on the purity rights and staying unsullied from the barbaric Gentiles had resulted in their refusal to be the people God always intended for them to be. They had distorted the law to prevent any contact between Jew and Gentile, when the law never condemned contact with Gentiles, merely religious alliances with them. Israel’s mission was to be a light to the nations from the very beginning, but they refused to be this, and instead threw bushel baskets over their lights to keep it to themselves. Jesus comes, announcing the Kingdom, and in the Sermon on the Mount He sets out to correct Israel’s corruptions. Those who follow this Kingdom way are living according to the deeper elements of the old law – justice, mercy, Jubilee – and would be restored to being the people of God because they were living the mission of the people of God. Most notably, this Kingdom way was a great lifting of the burdens of the corruptions of the Pharisees and scribes, a loosening of moral and ethical purity from their perspective. Those the Pharisees and scribes and elites in Israel kept separate from were the very ones whom Jesus came to bring into the Kingdom; the broken and the poor, the peasant and the rural farmer, the slave and the mentally handicapped, the single mothers and tax collectors and children, the prostitutes and vile sinners of ill reputation, all the ones that the powerful and wealthy in Israel sneered at. Such a Kingdom was unattractive to the powerful and elites in Israel. It wasn’t what they expected. Where was the vengeful, sword-wielding Messiah they expected, who came to lay waste to their enemies in a great bloodbath of rage and vindication? This was a Kingdom of the margins and marginals. The weak and the broken had everything to gain, but the wealthy and powerful had much to lose.