The Big Picture (Continued)
A Time of Uncertainty
Now back in the land, God’s people entered a strange time. They rebuilt the Temple and Jerusalem, but the glory cloud never came back. David’s city was restored, but David’s throne was empty. Pagans still ruled the world. Other gods were still robbing God’s praise for themselves. And then came disaster. As Daniel had prophesied, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the new Temple with an unclean, pagan sacrifice. God seemed to give them victory when they responded, but without a word through any prophet.
Even the victory the Jews won didn’t go that far. Before long, they were still subject to pagan powers. What was happening? Didn’t God promise a kingdom? These questions lingered and intensified. God’s people handled it different ways. Many groups thought Israel was too sinful to inherit the promises. To deal with that, some groups went into seclusion, waiting for God to show up, judge everyone else, and reward them for their faithfulness. Others made themselves comfortable in the pagan order. Still others tried to correct and teach the masses of Israel. And then there were those who favored violent revolution. If the kingdom were to come, they thought, God would bring it through their fight, like Joshua of old.
Recap: Presence and Power
We could look at the issue from another angle, going back to the beginning. The story of God and His people ties into the story of God and His presence. God had made the world like a chalice, or a vessel, for His glory. So when He made Adam and Eve in Eden, He set up a home base. From there His children, as priests, could dwell in His presence and spread it to the ends of the earth. But since they failed this task, God had to withdraw His presence, lest it destroy both sinners and their sin.
In God’s “absence,” humanity turned to rebellious spirits who were quite willing to be present in exchange for worship. But their glory was a sham and their presence a stain. So He called His own people and gradually replanted His presence in the world among them. He marked a portion of the world, a deposit, as His own holy land. He evicted the false gods and their people to fill it with His own glory. But Israel kept alienating God with her sins and by inviting the idols back into the land. So her history became a struggle with God’s presence, trying to live with God in her midst.
Eventually, God’s presence left them in the land, which let the pagan presence they had courted refill it. But then God was present with them in exile and finally brought them home. Many of the signs of His presence returned, but so did signs of His absence.
How would God’s glory ever fill the earth like He intended? Why was it instead filled with demons and idols and death? And how could the final goal ever come about if God’s own people seemed unfit to bear His presence?
A Man Sent from God
This brings us to the first century AD. The world outside Israel was largely still pagan. Most of the known regions were under the sway of the Roman Empire, a kingdom of pluralistic paganism and even emperor worship. To most of the Jews, this was a terrible situation. The kingdoms of this world belonged to Satanic forces, and the actual Creator’s honor was hardly anywhere to be seen. Surely it was time for Him to act. Many waited with bated breath to see God deliver His people (only, of course, the faithful), overthrow the pagan empire, and establish His rule over the nations which had one been allegiant to false gods. Perhaps this would even be the endgame. The dead would be raised, a final judgment would ensue, and history would come to a close.
It was in this charged atmosphere that God did, finally, break His silence. He sent a prophet named John to announce that He was coming back to His people. Yahweh was returning to Zion. The kingdom was at hand: soon God would take back the world that had defected to rebel spirits. Soon His presence would live with His people again, and after a healthy cleansing, it would fill the world.
But there was a catch. John declared that nearly everyone needed to repent. All of Israel was on the wrong track and would need a fresh start to get in on God’s coming victory. He made them be baptized, a sign of a pagan converting. The message couldn’t be more clear: the people of Israel had gone a hundred wrong ways, and they all needed to turn around and prepare for the way of the Messiah. Otherwise they would go the way of the pagans and be soon destroyed.
The Coming Messiah
Now, during the long silence between the last prophets and the days of John, Israel had much time to think. Reflections on the Torah and the Prophets formed a vague but potent impression: sooner or later God would send a new leader. He would be heir to David’s throne, and as the rightful king of Israel, lead God’s victory over the pagan kingdoms. In the name of the true God, he would conquer the nations, dethrone Satan’s regents, subdue Israel’s enemies, vindicate God’s faithful people, and lead a new age of worldwide honor for God’s name. Finally, through his work, the earth would fill with God’s presence and glory, like God had always intended.
There were many spins on this idea. Some people simply didn’t believe it, and every sect who believed it had their own twist. But the gist was popular enough that everyone knew what John was announcing. The kingdom was coming, and so was the king. After John would come the Messiah.
Now, all along, God had been performing His plans though humans. This was the point of making us, after all. But all of them had made major failures. Adam fell, Noah fell, Moses fell, Eli fell, David fell, Solomon fell, and so on. But each chosen leader made it further than the last. Each brought more glory to God and to His people. What would make the final difference? If God was finally to push through the last stage, finally to bring His people to the climax of their purpose, and finally to ensure the victorious glorification of His name before all nations over all gods, it seems He would need a perfect man. Some had seemed close before, but in the end, as the saying goes, “If you want something done right…do it yourself.”