The Value of the Apocrypha: 1 Maccabees and Jesus

Capernaum - Kfar Nahum - IsraelHistorical context matters. I can think of many instances when learning the “rest of the story” is of immense help in understanding the current context. A social gathering gets suddenly awkward when Yuri enters the room; Boris, next to you, leans over to whisper, “He and Sasha used to date.”*  A particular church’s dynamics seem bizarre until you learn about the split that happened back in ’84 (choose a century). Your historical context matters. You’ve been shaped for better or worse by the people you’ve encountered, the crises you’ve undergone, the adversity you’ve overcome.

The Bible is no different. If you want to understand what’s going on it helps a lot to have an idea about the key historical events that shaped the lives of the people found there.   When we study the New Testament, we walk into the middle of a very long and complicated story. This includes the narrative of the Old Testament, but also the narrative of the in-between time: the inter-testamental period, the epoch that gave rise to the Apocrypha.

We’ve been considering the Apocrypha and its value.  The Apocrypha is quite useful for providing insight into the historical context of the New Testament. To illustrate: the kingly expectation of Jesus.

The Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for a king to come. This was part of the OT prophetic tradition around Messiah. When the Messiah, or Christ, came, he would be a new David. In fulfillment of the great prophecy of 2 Sam 7, he would be a Son of David who would reign over a never-ending kingdom, a dominion of justice and righteousness that would extend to the nations.

We see lots of this in Jesus’ coming. He is born in Bethlehem (in fulfillment of Micah 5:2); he is adored as a king at his birth (Matt 2:2); he is hailed as a king at his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:9-11, the Jewish crowd quotes from Psalm 118); he is ironically crucified as a king (Matt 27:19); he ascends into heaven to take his seat at the right hand of the Father (a kingly image, Matt 26:64); the central focus of his preaching and teaching is the establishment of his kingdom (“kingdom of God” in Luke alone = 31x). All of this has an OT context and can be understood in light of the OT revelation.

But…one somewhat confusing thing we read in the gospels is the level of misunderstanding concerning Jesus’ kingship. In short: the people (and even the apostles!) seem to expect a very different kind of king than the kind of king Jesus came to be. They are looking for a king who will fight and kill Romans, who will reign in a traditional kingly fashion. For instance:

Matthew 20:20-22  20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them.

What Jesus says here is literally true. James and John thought they were asking to be temporal leaders, the #2 and #3 in an earthly Jewish kingdom. Their expectations are way off. At some level they expect Jesus to overthrow Roman authority and seize power by might. But he’s come for a different kind of kingship. He takes the opportunity to enlighten them about the upside-down nature of his kingship and kingdom.

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Why were the Jews, even those closest to Jesus, so way off in their expectation as to the nature of his kingdom? This is where the Apocrypha can be immensely helpful to us, particularly the book of 1 Maccabees.

This book describes events that took place about 170 years before the birth of Christ. Then, too, the Jews had known real suffering and oppression at the hands of a Gentile oppressor every bit as brutal as the Romans. The Macedonian Greek Empire of the Seleucids, one of the successor kingdoms of Alexander the Great’s massive territorial conquest, extended from the Aegean to India. It was militarily mighty and was determined (under the monstrous rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes) to enforce Greek culture upon its citizens – the unfortunate Jews would adopt Greek customs and gods, and would stop teaching their children to follow the ways of their forefathers…or they would die. Consider this text:

1 Maccabees 1:20-38  20 After subduing Egypt, Antiochus…went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. 21 He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. 22 He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. 23 He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures that he found. 24 Taking them all, he went into his own land. He shed much blood, and spoke with great arrogance. 25 Israel mourned deeply in every community, 26 rulers and elders groaned, young women and young men became faint, the beauty of the women faded. 27 Every bridegroom took up the lament; she who sat in the bridal chamber was mourning. 28 Even the land trembled for its inhabitants, and all the house of Jacob was clothed with shame…. 32 They took captive the women and children, and seized the livestock…. 37 On every side of the sanctuary they shed innocent blood; they even defiled the sanctuary.

Can you imagine living in such an evil time as this? The people were desperate for a deliverer, and one came forth in the form of Mattathias the priest and his sons. The most famous of these was Judas Maccabeus (Maccabeus means “The Hammerer”!). This nickname gives the name to the book as a whole, the book of “Hammerers.”**

1 Maccabees 2:1-4 In those days Mattathias son of John son of Simeon, a priest of the family of Joarib, moved from Jerusalem and settled in Modein. 2 He had five sons, John surnamed Gaddi, 3 Simon called Thassi, 4 Judas called Maccabeus

1 Maccabees 2:19-27  19 …Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, everyone of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, 20 I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. 21 Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. 22 We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”…. 27 Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”

What the Hammer family did next was extraordinary. Zealous for the Lord, they led a rebellion against the mighty Antiochus…and they won! They hammered the Gentiles into submission. They established against all odds an independent Jewish state under Maccabean priest-kings that would last for the next 100 years (until the arrival of the Romans and Herod the Great).

What does all of this have to do with Jesus? A lot actually. Why didn’t people seem to get Jesus’ kind of kingship? Because the collective historical experience of the Jews had taught them to expect a very different kind of king-deliverer. They were looking for another Hammer. They wanted a Roman-smasher, not someone who wanted to teach them about loving their enemies. Jesus came as their king, but they didn’t receive him; they crucified him. He came as a hammer against the Devil, a hammer against sin. He came as a priest-king far greater than any Maccabean ruler, but their own experience prevented them from seeing it. Their historical context had blinded them to the coming of their king.

Many in our day (all of us some of the time) have trouble seeing Jesus clearly as well. Our historical context obscures our vision. Perhaps a negative encounter with a poor witness, perhaps an experience of pain and loss, perhaps a personal betrayal. These things can make it difficult to see clearly, but when clearly seen Jesus is the answer to the above and much, much more. He is the king, and in his kingdom alone there is life. And he has succeeded in beating into submission the forces of evil in a manner that the force of arms never could.

*Russian names used here in order to add ethnic variety.  

**There are a number of very funny “Hammer” jokes related to the once famous rapper Stanley Kirk Burrell, better known as MC Hammer, later simply as Hammer, that could be made at this point in the argument, but I refrained in order to preserve the flow of argument.