Atoning for the Nation
by Lois Tverberg

From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Matthew 16:21

A person might wonder whether the Jews of Jesus' day were looking for a Messiah that would atone for their sin, or whether they were looking for a military savior, a king like David. This is a comment made today by Jews today who don't believe in Jesus - that in Judaism there is no idea that the death of one person can atone for the sins of others, and that Christians insult them by saying that Israel was looking for forgiveness from God in Jesus' time, when they actually weren't.

That question in mind, it is very interesting to read a passage from the book of 2 Maccabees 1 which describes the persecution of the Jews before the Maccabean revolt in 172 BC. There is a story about a Jewish woman and her seven sons who refused to publically reject their faith in God, and each of the brothers is tortured to death for his faith. The last brother has this as his final words to the emperor who is persecuting them:

For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God's covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.
                                                                                        (2 Maccabees 7:36-38)

What is fascinating is the last line. The speaker expected that through his suffering, and that of his brothers, God would forgive their nation. Likely he is thinking of Isaiah 53 that talks about the suffering servant whose death atones for the nation.

Then, in the next chapter the Maccabees revolt, and prayed for God to be reminded of all the suffering of the Jews who had tried to be faithful to his laws and were murdered in spite of it. We read, "As soon as Maccabeus got his army organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy." (2 Mac 8:5) The text is implying that the suffering of the seven brothers and others, had caused God to forgive his people and come to their aid giving them a military victory, and allowing them to regain control of the Temple.

This victory, celebrated in Jesus' time as the "Feast of Dedication," today is celebrated as Hanukkah. This helps us better understand the passage in John:

At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, "How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly." (John 10:22-24)

Knowing more about the events of the time helps us understand why people were questioning Jesus about whether he was the Messiah or not. It would have been at this celebration that they would be very mindful of the events of a few generations before, when they were being persecuted by the Greeks for their faith. This time the Jewish nation was undergoing great suffering at the hands of the Romans, and they wondered if Jesus was going to end God's wrath and deliver them from that too.

It also helps us understand why the first question that the disciples asked the risen Christ was, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6) If the Maccabees had gained victory because of the death of a few of the faithful, how much more did they expect that they would have military victory if the Messiah had suffered and died and even been resurrected by God! They didn't understand yet that God's victory through the atonement of Christ would not only be for their nation, but for a kingdom that would reach the whole world, and that it would purchase eternal life for all who believed!

1 The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees are from the apocrypha, a group of texts that are not included in either the Jewish or Protestant canons of Scripture, although they are included in the Catholic Bible. Whether or not one believes they are inspired, they are often very helpful in understanding the context of Jesus because many of them were written shortly before his time and reflect the Jewish thinking of his day.

6 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All rights
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