I’ve read more than one work of theology that attempted to explain the rejection of Jesus’ messiah-hood by the majority of Jews like this: Jews expectated the messiah to be a nationalist–even military–leader who would liberate them from Roman oppression, but Jesus was a different kind of messiah, a “spiritual” one who came to liberate us from our guilt and sin.* One problem with this account is that it reinforces stereotypes about “carnal” Jews and “spiritual” Christians. In the chapter on eschatology in his Way of Blessing, Way of Life, Clark Williamson proposes that it’s more illumaniting to see Jewish rejection of Jesus in a different light: it was because Jesus’ ministry clearly didn’t usher in the “days of the messiah,” the age where oppression, injustice, war, and hunger (for everyone, not just Jews) would be things of the past. By this reckoning, Jews were well-justified in not accepting the claims made on Jesus’ behalf!
Williamson says that the early Christians maintained the same kind of messianic expectation, at least for a while, with the teaching that Jesus would return soon to usher in the messianic age. But as that hope of an imminent return faded, the church pushed its eschatological hope off into the afterlife and/or identified the “kingdom of God” that Jesus proclaimed with the spread of the church. Thus it became possible for Christians to see Jews as stubbornly refusing to accept what should’ve been obvious to them–that the Messiah had come. Along the way, Christians lost their sense of the eschatological tension between what had already been accomplished in Jesus and what was yet to be accomplished.
As Christian eschatology has become increasingly otherworldly and privatized, we need, Williamson argues, to recover a more “Jewish” emphasis on this-worldly liberation as one pole of our eschatological hope. God wants the world to display relations of justice and peace. On the other hand, even the most just society would contain suffering, disease, sin, oppression, and death. These are constituent elements of our present condition that can’t be done away with by any program of this-worldly liberation. Moreover, if we restrict our hope to establishing a just society in this world, what about all the people who have died, many of them under conditions of terrible oppression and injustice? That’s why the other pole of our eschatology must remain our ultimate hope in God’s promise to save us, even beyond the horizon of death.
*I recognize that it’s far from certain that Jesus, in fact, claimed to be the Jewish messiah in any straightforward way.
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