“He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.”
When Jesus came into the world 2,000 years ago He was not stepping into a religious vacuum. He lived and taught and performed miracles in Israel, a people with a unique religious tradition of monotheism and a lofty moral code. They were expecting a Messiah, but then when that Messiah came they rejected Him. It was one of the most tragic paradoxes in history.
On one level it was all a part of God’s plan. Jesus came specifically to die on the cross as an atonement for human sin. Thus His rejection was all a part of the plan. But on another level the Jewish response to Jesus was unfortunate. He came bearing a message of divine love and salvation – and they rejected it, much to their own detriment. Their Savior was put to death on a cross.
What were they expecting? As we have seen there were numerous biblical prophecies foretelling a day when a king in the line of David would come and establish a reign of peace and righteousness. But how and when it would happen was a much debated question. This was especially true when Jesus lived here on earth. Various competing groups offered different theories.
After winning its independence at the beginning of the First Century B.C. Judaea quickly fell into internal dissension. Eventually the Romans intervened and installed Herod as king in 40 B.C. During this period a variety of Jewish sects sprang up that were very much troubled by these developments. Inevitably they turned back to Old Testament prophecy for clues about what might happen in the future.
One group, the Pharisees, were the dominant party at the time of Christ, and like other Jews they looked forward to the coming of Messiah. But they saw the Messiah primarily as a national Deliverer. He would destroy the Roman power, Israel would be regathered, a resurrection of the dead would take place. Enemies would attack Jerusalem and be repulsed, and then the Messianic kingdom would be established. The Pharisees saw that Israel’s calamity was the result of sin, and that what was needed was repentance and a more faithful attention to the law. What was missing, however, in this conception of the Messiah was the idea of an atonement for sin and salvation for the world as a whole.
But there were other groups, more radical than the Pharisees. Some of them were actively preparing for the final war between good and evil. In one of the Dead Sea Scrolls a final conflict is described in which “the sons of light” battle the “sons of darkness.” The war culminates in a final battle. In the various military operations the priests and Levites play a conspicuous role, but interestingly, there is no mention of a Messiah!
What the Jews of Jesus’ day failed to recognize is the Messiah’s role as a priest. God is holy, and we are sinners by nature. “For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness. / Nor shall evil dwell with You” (Ps. 5:4; NKJV), and “. . . the righteous God tests the hearts and minds” (Ps. 7:9). “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, / O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130.3). “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day . . .” (Lu. 24:46). In order for the kingdom to be realized the problem of our sin had to be dealt with, and that required an atoning sacrifice that could only be offered by the Messiah Himself. Jesus’ contemporaries could not see that, and were only working for a political deliverer.
And is that not our problem today? We are concerned about the direction of our country, and are looking for a political solution. We want a religion that will comfort, renew and restore. But we fail to recognize the deeper problem that lies within our own hearts. It is our own selfishness and indifference, our preoccupation with things of this life and our disregard for the will of God, that is the real problem. We need a Savior and not just a political Messiah. God is calling us to repentance and humble obedience. Will we listen?