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Chapter Ten: The End Comes

 

After John the Baptist’s disciples had left, Jesus made this puzzling statement: “Ever since the coming of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are seizing it.” (Matthew 11: 12) What does it mean? One interpretation is that “the Kingdom was to be realized by force of arms.” John, or even Jesus, was a political revolutionary. No, Schweitzer explains, Jesus “is only making it clear that since the preaching of the Baptist men have been exercising pressure on the coming of the Kingdom.” (Schweitzer, p. 123) Pious men have been trying to make the Kingdom come more quickly.

This leads back to the idea that mankind can make God’s kingdom a reality through work. In Schweitzer’s view, Jesus is “far from regarding believers, as Zarathustra did, as God’s comrades in the struggle for the victory of good over evil. Nevertheless, he did stand for the view that they could do something to advance the coming of the Kingdom.” (Schweitzer, p. 123) Even if God alone decides its timing, men could perhaps exert influence or, in other words, put “pressure” on God to speed things up.

Pressuring God through Prayer

“How do they (Jesus’ followers) exercise pressure on the coming of the Kingdom? By the repentance (change of heart) through which they prepare themselves for the coming of the Kingdom. They hope that this will move God to let it appear.” (Schweitzer, p. 124) The repentance which John requests of those who are baptized is one way that believers might pressure God. Jesus suggests another: the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus teaches his followers to pray for the Kingdom to come.

The opening lines of this prayer are: “Our Father in heaven, thy name be hallowed; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 9-10) One is asking God to bring his heavenly Kingdom to earth. The last two verses in the prayer (Matthew 6: 13) are, as we have seen, a request for the Kingdom to come without requiring Jesus’ followers to face “the test” - the tribulation. What of the line, “Give us today our daily bread”? Is this, as many suppose, a request for God to give people the material sustenance which they will need each day? No, it is a request for God to let Jesus’ followers participate in the banquet with the Messiah which will take place when the Kingdom is established. It is a request to let this happen today - soon.

“As a request for the speedy arrival of the time of the Messianic banquet,” writes Schweitzer, this is also “a petition for the coming of the Kingdom of God. As in the last two petitions, so in this too, the literal translation has been ignored because it did not yield any intelligible sense. It is translated, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, instead of, literally, ‘Give us to-day, now, our bread for the future’. As in the two concluding petitions, so in this, the meaning of the literal translation can be understood only when we take into account the eschatological concept which it presupposes. It is that of the Messianic banquet. In this petition the believers implore God to let the supernatural bread of the expected Messianic banquet appear immediately in place of their ordinary bread.” (Schweitzer, p. 124)

The Messianic banquet first appears in Jewish prophetic literature in the 25th chapter of Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will prepare a banquet of rich fare for all the peoples, a banquet of wines well matured and richest fare, well-matured wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25: 6) References to this banquet are scattered throughout the Gospels. Jesus says at Capernaum: “Many, I tell you, will come from the east and west to feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 8: 11) The two fish and five loaves of bread miraculously multiplied into food whose scraps filled “twelve great baskets”, feeding thousands. (Matthew 14: 18-21) The seven loaves of bread and the small fishes expanded into food to feed thousands more (Matthew 15: 36-37) are “preliminary celebrations of the Messianic banquet ... This means that the recipients, without knowing it, are called to take part in the Messianic banquet. Because they have been table-companions of the Messiah in his concealment and humility, they will be with him also in his glory.” (Schweitzer, p. 124-125)

The most important event foreshadowing the Messianic banquet would be Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples. Jesus refers to the bread which is his body and to the wine which is his blood (Matthew 26: 26-28) in words recalling the words of Isaiah about the “banquet of rich fare” and the “banquet of wines” which God will prepare. If anything still is unclear, Jesus adds this clarifying statement: “I tell you, never again shall I drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father.” (Matthew 26: 29) Jesus is here promising the disciples that they will be with him in the Kingdom of God, again eating and drinking with him, when he has become the Messiah. He is also saying that he will die before he has an opportunity to eat another earthly meal.

“If Jesus assumed that believers by repentance and entreaty in the Lord’s Prayer for the appearance of the Kingdom of God are actually exercising pressure on its coming, this helps to bring everything into focus. We can now understand his conviction that God had ordained that, as the future Messiah, he could by his voluntary suffering and death bring about the coming of the Kingdom without the prior occurrence of the Messianic tribulation. Through his death the two last petitions of the Lord’s Prayer find fulfillment.” (Schweitzer, p. 125)

Does Jesus’ Death Atone for the Sins of Others?

Even if Jesus’ death cancels the requirement of the pre-Messianic tribulation, some have argued that this death is “at the same time a death of atonement, producing a forgiveness of sins.” In dying, Jesus may have produced the same washing away of sin that John the Baptist accomplished through immersion in water. This is an attractive and plausible theory. Schweitzer points out that in the Lord’s Prayer “the petition for forgiveness (of sins) and that for protection from the pre-Messianic tribulation come next to each other. (Yet) it is not clear that there is any connection between them.” (Schweitzer, p. 125-126) In Schweitzer’s view, Jesus’ death brings about cancellation of the pre-Messianic tribulation, and cancellation of the pre-Messianic tribulation brings about the Kingdom of God. Nothing further is required.

If Jesus’ death brings about the coming of the Kingdom, does it also guarantee each person alive a place in the Kingdom? Schweitzer argues against that point of view. The prophets had long maintained that admission to the Kingdom would involve a moral separation. Some persons would be saved and others not. What is the criterion which Jesus uses to determine which person will be saved? Is it baptism? Is it belief in him as Messiah? No, there is a simpler criterion, one which also is stated in the Lord’s Prayer. That is the principle of forgiveness. “Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.” (Matthew 6: 12) in other words, God will forgive your sins (and let you enter the Kingdom of Heaven) if you forgive the sins of others.

“The forgiveness of sins for which Jesus bids believers pray in the Lord’s Prayer comes from God alone. It presupposes nothing but his compassion and that on their side men have forgiven those who need their forgiveness. This condition must be met in full. It should be noted that the usual translation (the one ordinarily used when the Lord’s Prayer is recited in worship) makes it sound milder than it really is. In the text of Matthew it runs not ‘as we forgive them that trespass against us’ but ‘as we have forgiven’. (Matthew 6: 12) What is required is to have forgiven, not just the sentiment of being willing to forgive.” (Schweitzer, p. 126)

Some of Jesus’ other quotations confirm that interpretation. Right after giving them the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says to the disciples: “For if you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father.” (Matthew 6: 14-15) The principle is clear; it succinctly states Jesus’ idea of what it takes for one’s sins to be forgiven by God so that one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Furthermore, “no saying of Jesus found in the two oldest Gospels would lead to the conclusion that he ever withdrew or expanded the simple teaching in the Lord’s Prayer about the forgiveness of sins because of the meaning he attached to his suffering and death.” (Schweitzer, p. 126)

There is an idea that humanity’s heavy load of sin required a cancellation of that sin before the Kingdom could arrive; and Jesus’ atoning death provided the cancellation. “But according to the information we have about the pre-Messianic tribulation from the later prophets and the Apocalypses, the pious have to prove themselves in it, not to expiate sins. Nor it is presupposed in late Jewish eschatology that a load of guilt encumbers the world and is delaying the coming of the Kingdom. In the Apocalypse of Ezra it is expressly stated that the coming of the Kingdom of God, when the time for it has arrived, cannot be delayed by anything, not even by the sins of the dwellers upon earth (4 Ezra 4: 38-42.” (Schweitzer, p. 127)

Jesus seems to be referring to an atoning death when he says at the Last Supper, “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many.” (Mark 14: 24) “He sees his death therefore as a sacrifice offered at the conclusion of the new covenant. In the prophets the Kingdom is regarded as the new covenant which God concludes with his people.” Schweitzer argues, however, that “a sacrifice offered at the conclusion of a covenant is a very different thing from a sacrifice of propitiation. It has nothing to do with the cancelling of sins, but is only an act confirming the compact.” (Schweitzer, p. 127)

The strongest scriptural evidence in favor of an atoning death would be passages in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah which refer to “being pierced for our transgressions, tortured for our iniquities ... the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.” (Isaiah 53: 5-6) Although Jesus associates the Suffering Servant with himself, “he does not, so far as we can gather ... regard his death as an atonement, but as an act of service and the payment of a ransom ... Even if the Servant passages suggest it, Jesus cannot regard his death as a sacrifice necessary for the forgiveness of sins. His view of the unconditional forgiveness that comes from God’s compassion precludes it ... The real meaning of his death, however, he finds in its effect in meeting the conditions needed for the coming of the Kingdom ... To judge from the indications we have of Jesus’ view of the meaning of his death, he did not regard it as an atonement which in any way effected the forgiveness of sins.” (Schweitzer, p. 127-128)

What Happened in the Garden of Gethsemane

One detail remained before Jesus could go to his death, cancel the pre-Messianic tribulation, and bring about the Kingdom of God. Although Jesus resolved to die alone, three of his disciples - Peter, James, and John - had implicated themselves in that event by promising to share Jesus’ fate. Would they, too, have to die? Jesus also wonders if, in light of God’s mercy in cancelling the tribulation, God might be willing to cancel his own suffering, too.

“Although Jesus is resolved to face suffering and death, he still retains a hope that God may be disposed to dispense with the tribulation without his having to make the sacrifice for which he is ready. There is no limit to the omnipotence of God. In Gethsemane he entreats God three times that this cup may pass him by. (Matthew 26: 37-44) As he had made believers pray in the Lord’s Prayer for protection from the tribulation, so he now prays for himself. He takes with him for this prayer James, John and Peter, leaving the other disciples behind. Why are these three to be with him? So that he may have companions to stand by him in is distress? No, the reason is a different one. These three have promised to share with him his death, which is equivalent to the pre-Messianic tribulation.” (Schweitzer, p. 129)

The incident mentioned here is James’ and John’s request that Jesus allow them to sit on his right hand and on his left hand in the Kingdom of Heaven: “Jesus said to them, ‘You do not understand what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ ‘We can’, they answered. Jesus said, ‘The cup that I drink you shall drink, and the baptism I am baptized with shall be your baptism; but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.’” (Matthew 10: 38-40) Jesus has promised James and John that they would drink from his cup and share his baptism, meaning his experience of death. The same is also true of Peter who said to Jesus at the Mount of Olives: “Even if I must die with you, I will never disown you.” (Matthew 26: 35)

“Now that the time has come, he (Jesus) is anxious for the three that they may really be about to suffer and die with them. That is why they are to be with him and watch with him now. His entreaty includes them too. If God grants him not to have to drink the cup, they will escape too.” (Schweitzer, p. 129) Although Jesus urges the three disciples to remain awake, they lapse into sleep. Jesus warns them: “What! Could none of you stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake, and pray that you may be spared the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26: 41)

The Greek word used here for “test”, Schweitzer notes, is “a form of testing through suffering and the agony of death” which is equivalent to the pre-Messianic tribulation. Nevertheless, the situation is resolved: “The three were spared the suffering and death with Jesus which they had presumed to accept. He need not have been anxious for them. He (Jesus) alone goes to his death.” (Schweitzer, p.130)

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