A two-fold message for a divided nation

"Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?"
(Jeremiah 13:23)
They had always been a divided nation. Dual-personality had a deep heritage, rooted somewhere in the distant past. They were obsessed with twins. Pairings featured heavily in their sacred writings: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Ephraim and Manasseh. Then, a kingdom split in two, north and south, Judah and Israel. And where there was more than one, favouritism was never far away: "Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated." And where there was favouritism, inevitably there was jealousy.

Israel was a terrifying, vicious little nation, capable of great slaughter. They had no compunction leaving behind a defeated city strewn with assorted dead, young and old, women and children. They were perfectly capable of using their sacred ritual of circumcision to torture and humiliate the enemy. They would say, "God is with us, take it up with him."

Their God was a jealous God because they were a jealous people. Their God was wrathful because they were, full of self-righteous indignation. The love Israel had for their neighbour reflected the love they had for themselves.

It would stand to reason that there were two ideologies: Messianic hope, and/or Law Covenant. On the one hand, God would provide a Saviour who could guarantee unity between God and man; on the other hand, there were a set of legal requirements which, if met, would guarantee unity between God and man. Both amounted to the same thing, ultimately - a broken relationship with God. A psychological breakdown.

For hundreds of years it was the Messianic hope that held sway. Legend told of God's choosing. The nation's success was understood to be because their God had installed their king, the anointed one. First David, and then Solomon, establishing Judah as the divinely appointed ruling family. God was said to have made an agreement with David ensuring that the rulership would remain within his house. The northern kingdom's demise could only be because their kingship was not the divinely chosen lineage.

A prophet's faith destroyed
Jeremiah was probably the pivot on which things turned. So sure was he of the Messianic hope that he was willing to go out on a limb and attempt what no-one else had done. He would predict the future. He placed all his expectations on a young king by the name of Josiah. He specifically named him, and inserted him into a historical text claiming to identify him 300 years in advance. When an Egyptian arrow brought that hope to an end, Jeremiah was devastated. He had made a false prophet of himself. However, it wasn't beyond him to implicate God in his falsehood: "Oh LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived."

The experience shattered his faith in a Messiah and he turned instead to the laws of Moses. To a great extent he had already tied the anointed ruler's success with his adherence to the Law, but now he was willing to overthrow the covenant with the house of David in favour of the Law Covenant. Judah's disastrous situation was because they had not kept the covenant of Moses. In the revised history, the curse of ending up back in Egypt from whence they had come, was foretold and fulfilled. So it was that they ended up in Egypt. Surely God must have warned that this would be the result because this was the result.

So the divide was wrought. Although the possibility of a rightful ruler was never entirely written off, Messianic hope all but died away. The emphasis was placed on cleaving to the law to win God's approval. The end of the Judean kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the nation's exile at the hand of Babylon, gave this interpretation the stamp of authenticity.

The holy writings collected together over the following few centuries were a masterpiece of manipulation. They married the two ideologies of Messianic hope and lawkeeping. Moses became a beacon of Messianic divine appointment, and it was he who had provided the peoples with their Law Covenant. The thrust was emphatically one-sided.

Inevitably it didn't succeed. By the first century, things had become decidedly ugly. Division persisted, and had become even worse. Now there was rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, the righteous and the "sinners" - those who kept the law scrupulously, and those who did not. Stuff all that unrest into the powder-keg of a country occupied by an ungodly Roman army, and something reactionary was bound to take place.

A two-fold message
In this prevailing atmosphere, an unremarkable young man made a spiritual breakthrough. He had an awakening; a moment of enlightenment; a revelation. He experienced it personally, and he knew it to be true. With two key phrases he was able to satisfy for himself the misunderstanding that existed within the Israelite people.

  • "The kingdom of God is near." It had always been near. It was not some far-off, distant hope to be waited for patiently, only to have expectations dashed. They looked at Solomon's reign - hundreds of years between the promise to Abraham and the arrival of Judean rule. King Josiah foretold 300 years in advance. The kingdom was none of this sort. It was near, it always had been, if only you knew where to look. It wasn't coming with a "visible display", as they had always imagined, for it was "within you". That is how near it was. You could stretch forward and seize it. He even suggested what was required to reach out and grab that kingdom: Repentance and forgiveness. An inner journey, a determination to understand and let go. A need to sacrifice the old self and allow a place for the new - the real you. This was the pathway to being reunited with God. It would lead to recognising the second truth:

  • "Your sins have been forgiven." This meant that there was no need for a set of intensive laws to determine and maintain a clean standing with God. There never had been. For each and every individual, God understood what they were going through: "The very hairs of your head are numbered." And with that understanding came forgiveness. The only challenge remaining was to learn to forgive yourself. No wonder the religious leaders were incensed. How could this presumptuous man be telling prostitutes and tax-collecters that their sins were forgiven?

"Can the leopard change his spots?"
For one reason or another his appeal was cut short by an untimely death. It proved to be enough to ignite something slumbering. Word got about, and it caught on. Small pockets of hopefuls grabbed on to the rumours - "Could this be the Christ?" The application of selected scriptural verses threw wood onto the fire and before too long the country was ablaze with Messianic fervour. However, their new Messiah still had not delivered what they expected him to. There was no sign even of the kind of peace supposedly enjoyed by Israel during the reign of King Solomon. Visible or invisible, someone had not yet delivered on the promise, or met their side of the agreement.

In spite of this wrinkle, Christians quickly adopted religious traditions from their forebears: ritual prayer, psalm-singing, meetings. If they could not meet in the synagogue they would meet elsewhere. Soon there was a hierarchy. Their invisible leader needed some sort of visible manifestation, and eventually this too would exist unchallenged. Animal sacrifice was gradually replaced with the once-for-all-time sacrifice of the Messiah's life, which itself became a daily ritual as the "body of Christ" was held aloft as a reminder for all to see. The Israel of God was being meticulously preserved.

Proselytising was easily rebranded as evangelizing, but it amounted to the same thing - come over to this side, but if you don't embrace it, you won't be accepted. It only needed a charismatic figure to go into existing Jewish communities and persude the Messiah-hopefuls that their Christ had come. Eventually, Christianity was able to spread abroad the way it did because at its heart it was Israelite, fully capable of conquering and slaying and saying, "God is with us!" They calculated their history in the same way, by looking back and claiming that none of it could have been possible without God's spirit.

"Your sins have been forgiven" had all but been forgotten by the end of the first century. Whatever Jesus had said to counteract the labeling of people as "sinners", had faded away. The word "sinner" had been replaced by the likes of "ungodly" and "antichrist".

Christianity's desire to paper over man's broken condition with a one-size-fits-all Saviour puts them in the same position as the Pharisees to whom Jesus said, "You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to."

"Few are the ones finding it."
In my imagination, I like to think that those closest to him actually got the point. Perhaps the reason we know nothing about the majority of the "apostles" is that they took to heart what this humble carpenter had said. They experienced it for themselves, and they went off and lived quiet and happy lives, occasionally shaking their heads in sadness and disbelief at the mistaken fervour that was rapidly spreading abroad.