I’ve often struggled with the opening chapters of Luke. When you watch most Jesus movies (including the controversial Last Temptation of Christ), you get the following message: Jesus was a different kind of Messiah from what most Jews were anticipating. The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would beat the Romans, but Jesus wanted to free people from sin, not Rome. Moreover, according to this spiel, Jesus taught love, not opposition to the Romans.
But the opening chapters of Luke seem to give a nod to the common Jewish expectation. Look at the following passages:
The angel appearing to Mary in Luke 1:32-33: “[T]he Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (NRSV).
Mary in Luke 1:51-55: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Zechariah in Luke 1:68-75: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
Luke 2:25: “Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”
Luke 2:38: “At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Jesus in the Sermon on the Plain: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6: 20-21, 24-25).
The way I’m reading these passages is as follows: There were Jews who were happy that Messiah Jesus was coming, for they expected him to end their oppression. The Hebrew Scriptures predicted that God would raise up a Davidic king who would deliver Israel from her foreign enemies and restore her as a nation. And Luke presents Jews who were elated because they thought Jesus would fulfill that role. Jesus even offers this kind of good news in his Sermon on the Plain, for he promises the poor that they will be fed and laugh, as the rich go away empty.
The problem is that Jesus did none of those things in the first century. And so was God offering the Jews a false hope?
There are a variety of ways to approach this dilemma. Many of them have something to offer, but I’m not totally satisfied.
1. One can say that the Jews were wrong in their expectations. But Zechariah spoke his prophecy when he was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:67). Could he be wrong?
2. One can suggest that God was telling the Jews what the Messiah would eventually do, not what he’d accomplish in the first century. I understand why people see merit in this proposal, for Jesus in Luke 20:9 presents a man going on a long journey, which some apply to Jesus’ delay in returning. But the long journey includes the time of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ first coming, not just that between Jesus’ resurrection and return. So I don’t think one can appeal to that parable to argue that Luke expected a long time to pass before the parousia.
Many cite II Peter 3:8-9 to argue that time is basically irrelevant to God, meaning that, in God’s eyes, Christ would return soon after the first century. So God wasn’t misleading the first century Jews, even though the parousia would take place in a few thousand years! I agree that II Peter 3:8-9 is making that sort of claim, but I still feel as if God was offering the first century Jews a false hope, if Option 2 is correct. Here they were, expecting their yoke of foreign oppression to be broken as God established his kingdom (in the Daniel 2 “smashing the Gentile kingdoms and destroying evil” sense). But, bummer, it won’t happen for more than two thousand years! So I guess all their excitement was for nothing.
3. Some try to spiritualize the promises away. According to this view, Zechariah the priest really means that Jesus will deliver the Israelites from sin and Satan, not the Romans. The consolation of Jerusalem is not her physical restoration of the nation, but rather God’s forgiveness of her sins. This is the view of my trusty E-Sword commentaries, and, in Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright similarly argues that Jesus reinterpreted Israel’s restoration in a spiritual sense.
There is some merit to this, for Luke presents Jesus’ exorcisms as a sign of the kingdom of God, as Jesus binds the strong man, Satan (Luke 11:17-22). But I have problems spiritualizing away the Hebrew prophecies about Israel’s deliverance and restoration. When the disciples asked Jesus in Acts 1, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” they seemed to have meant Israel’s political restoration, something Jesus had not accomplished during his first coming. And Jesus did not disagree with their interpretation, for he didn’t say, “Hey, you got Israel’s restoration wrong! It’s spiritual, not political.” Rather, he answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (v 7).
That’s not to suggest that Israel’s restoration lacks a spiritual component, for the Hebrew prophets were clear that it would accompany God’s forgiveness of her sins. And the early chapters of Luke may very well presume that God would do this through Jesus’ death. Although Simeon believed that Jesus would bring about the consolation of Israel, he still expected Jesus to die at the hands of his opponents (Luke 2:34-35). Simeon is excited that Israel’s deliverance as a nation is near, yet he realizes that Jesus must die before that takes place.
4. Maybe God wanted to establish the kingdom in the first century, but he chose not to do so because the Jews rejected it. This proposal has merit. In Luke 13:34, Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This implies that Jesus would have restored Jerusalem, if only it had been willing.
But, alas, the Jewish authorities in Luke helped bring about Jesus’ death. That’s as strong a rejection as you can get! And so God offers Israel another chance. In Acts 3:17-21, we read Peter’s exhortation to a group of Jews: “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”
Peter is telling Israel: “Look, your nation played a role in the Messiah’s death, and this was prophecied long ago. But if you repent, God will send the Messiah back to earth, and this time he’ll do all the good things that the prophets predicted: he’ll restore the nation, and the entire world.” In this sense, Israel’s restoration could have been soon, as Simeon and Mary and Anna and Zechariah anticipated. But it wasn’t because Israel refused to repent.
This sounds scripturally sound, but I have problems with it. First of all, Jesus predicted in Luke 21 that Jerusalem would fall. That must mean that he expected her not to repent! One can say that Luke presents two possible scenarios (restoration vs. destruction), each of which is contingent on Israel’s response to the Gospel. But is Luke filled with all sorts of contingencies? “I tell you, this WILL happen, but only if that happens first.” Plus, there were many Jews who embraced Peter’s message. Why couldn’t God do what he promised in Zechariah 13-14: destroy Jerusalem AND preserve a righteous remnant, right before he politically restores Jerusalem? Was Peter saying that every single Jew had to receive Jesus for the Messiah to return immediately?
5. In a sense, Jesus did not offer false hope to the hungry in his Sermon on the Plain. In his teachings, the poor would receive good things soon, while the rich would walk away empty. Jesus’ parables present the afterlife as a time when this would take place (Luke 12:15-21; 16:19-31). While that’s true, the Jews were also expecting a political deliverance and restoration, and Jesus didn’t exactly do that.
So I’ve not found an answer that completely satisfies me, yet I still believe Jesus’ words in Acts 1:7: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”