I received a question from Scot McKnight about my series this week on the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. He said it seemed I was saying that the image of a marriage supper with God in the age to come resonated and was even instinctual in the religion of Yeshua’s time. How, he asked, can we bring that instinct back to life?
Note: I want you all to think that important theologians like Scot McKnight read my blog daily and ask me for questions about how to teach their theology classes. But I think it would be unfair not to mention that I periodically bug Professor McKnight and others with questions.
I do believe that images like feasting with God in the days of Messiah was a common element in first century Judaism. In my post “The Marriage Supper, Part 1,” I laid out a reference in the New Testament as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls supporting this idea. What can we do to bring back that sense of Messianism for ourselves, our families, and our communities?
Common Judaism and Messianic Banquets
To be sure, the Messianic ideas of first century Judaism were varied. There were ideas about priestly messiahs and prophet messiahs. The idea of the Son of David was at least confusing to some (as E.P. Sanders shows, but I believe he overstates the case and neglects to properly weigh New Testament evidence).
Still, we know how things are in the religious world. Many ideas are fuzzy and people will assent to them while not understanding all that they entail.
A large number of texts from the prophets of Israel were commonly known and provided hope. I wrote a post some time back with a list from my book, A New Look at the Old Testament of the strongest messianic texts of the Hebrew Bible (see it here).
Their generation placed a high value on the table, the idea of a feast, the ordinary and extraordinary occasions when families and friends dined together. This value was part of both the Greco-Roman and Jewish world. This value made its way into the early communities of Yeshua who broke bread together and in some places celebrated agape feasts.
A text like Isaiah 25:6-8 was bound to be popular and catch the imagination of Jews in the first century. Dining with God and/or Messiah brought together two ideas worth celebrating and since the banquet was to be held on the temple mount, make that three.
Why Are We Disconnected?
The person who asked what we can do to bring back the instinct for messianism was asking from a Christian point of view. But before I explore why Christians may have become less connected to messianic imagination, let me first say something about Judaism’s loss. Messianic hope is officially imprinted in the traditional prayers of Judaism, even in the grace after meals. Yet it is sadly lacking in the faith and practice of most in the Jewish community (based on my involvement as well as reading). What can I say but that the Holocaust and the whole tragic history of persecution in the name of the Christian Messiah has been a major factor in turning to other hopes?
I think in Christianity, on the other hand, and I believe I read a similar idea in Michael Wyschogrod, a primary culprit in muted messianism is a faulty satisfaction with present redemption that desires too little the final redemption of all things. What I mean is, being possessed here and now of eternal life, too many are content. Where is the urgency in the end of all injustice, the death of death, and the completion of paradise? When times aren’t so bad, it is easy to be satisfied. Why urge the return of Yeshua?
The remedy for this lack of enthusiasm is simple. We need to immerse ourselves in the texts that moved the generations of Yeshua, Paul, and John. We need to understand what a cheap substitute for the world to come we are too easily satisfied with. Words of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Jeremiah should come readily to our lips.
So many think they have enough Bible to understand what is going on. No doubt they fail to be encouraged when they read detailed speculations or seemingly endless expositions of prophecies and lists of Assyrian kings and so on. Prophecy can be boring. It doesn’t have to be.
Thinking we have enough Bible, we invest our time in other things. For some, this includes reading books on devotional topics or even theology when we don’t really understand enough about the source material, the Bible, to benefit from theological reading.
We have distractions, religious and non-religious, and we don’t value like we should the glimpses of a better world that God has passed down to us through prophets and apostles. Some left aside all such reading when they had a bad experience or two with “prophecy” in some earlier part of their life and development.
The thing is, and N.T. Wright’s recent Christian book Surprised by Hope is evidence of this, the prophecies don’t say what we think they say. A slew of Christians read Wright’s book (and Alcorn’s Heaven) and found a paradigm change.
The ancients who walked with the God of Israel listened to these texts and made them part of their world. We can easily do the same.
My book The World to Come (available on amazon here) would be one place to easily find and comprehend the messianic texts of the Bible.