The previous article in this three-part series argued that Israel was still in exile at the end of the historical period covered in the Old Testament. Even though some people had returned to the promised land in the book of Ezra–Nehemiah, they were “exiles” in the sense that they had yet to be reconciled to God. They were still living under political bondage to foreign powers and under spiritual bondage to their sin. The curses of the covenant still weighed on them. None of the promises about a restored kingdom had yet come to pass.

In this second article, we will show how Jesus moves history forward a gigantic step through bringing exile to an end by inaugurating the everlasting kingdom of God. We better see the greatness of what Jesus did when we understand the New Testament as an “end-of-exile story,” a story about how God came in the flesh to end His people’s misery and make good on all His kingdom promises.

The Situation at the Beginning of the NT

Many important events take place in the time between the testaments (roughly 400 BC to AD 30). Political authority over the promised land changes hands several times, from the Persians to the Greeks (under several auspices) and then from the Greeks to the Romans. Many social and theological developments emerge among the Jews, scattered at home and abroad. And yet, when we consider God’s intentions to bring His people out of exile into a restored kingdom, we contend that no progress is made in the time between the testaments toward this redemptive goal. Certainly, the many historical developments we just referenced contribute to preparing the stage for Jesus’ arrival. But Israel remains in the same condition of exile at the beginning of the NT as they occupied at the end of the OT. We can demonstrate this point in two ways.

First, we note that many scholars of the intertestamental (or second temple) period observe a pattern in the writings of this time, indicating that the Jewish people in this period continued to understand themselves to be exiles.1 There are exceptions to this pattern,2 but it is nevertheless widespread and mainstream among the Jews of this period. To take one example: in 2 Maccabees, a document that probably dates to the first century BC, Jonathan (the high priest of Nehemiah’s day) is recorded as praying, “Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised” (2 Macc. 1:27–29, NRSV). Jonathan ostensibly prays this prayer in the fifth century BC in the land of promise, and as the narrative continues, it is clear that the same problems persist to the days of the Maccabees (second century BC).3

A second reason that we understand Israel to still be in exile (theologically speaking) by the beginning of the NT is the witness of the NT itself. Here are a number of indications in the NT that exile has continued until Jesus’ arrival:

  1. Matthew’s genealogy summarizes Israel’s story up to Jesus’ birth (Matt. 1:1–17). The last phase of the genealogy is about exile (“after the deportation to Babylon,” Matt. 1:12), with no indication that exile ended before the birth of Jesus.
  2. At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, we see that people came to John the Baptist for “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). The implication is that Israel was still seeking to complete the repentance that was needed to bring exile to an end (Deut. 30:1–3) and that they had not yet been forgiven (see Neh. 13:18). They even came to the Jordan River to be baptized, which recalls Israel’s first entry into the land (Josh. 3:17). This geographic note hints that the people were seeking a new entry into the land, a true end to exile.
  3. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, we meet Simeon, who is awaiting Israel’s consolation (Luke 2:25). “Consolation” is precisely what God promised to give when He brings exile to an end (Isa. 40:1). Looking for consolation implies that Simeon believed the conditions of exile to continue.
  4. The many demons that Jesus encountered throughout His ministry were indications of Israel’s ongoing spiritual bondage. Jesus said that He must first bind the strong man (Satan) before He plundered his house, thus liberating the souls of His people who were currently in bondage (Matt 12:29). By implication, the strong man had not been bound before the ministry of Jesus.
  5. This spiritual bondage emerges again and again in Jesus’ encounters with the people. The people of Israel of Jesus’ day were just as corrupt in their hearts as the people of Jeremiah’s day. Jesus came to “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39), an “unbelieving and perverted generation” (17:17, NASB). Their temple worship was no better than that of the hypocrites whom Jeremiah rebuked (Mark 11:17; Jer. 7:11; see also Mark 7:6–7; Isa. 29:13).
  6. Finally, in Matthew 15:24, Jesus says He has been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Even though they were back in the land, they were still “lost” and in need of being found.
Exile Ends and Restoration Begins

Israel’s condition of exile continued until Jesus’ day. But the NT proclaims the good news of God’s gospel, His victory over sin (Mark 1:1, 14). Jesus came to end Israel’s exile! And as we will see, He has also came to end the exile of all humanity, the exile that dates back to God’s casting Adam and Eve out of the garden when they rebelled (Gen. 3:23–24). The NT proclaims Jesus’ work as an end-of-exile story in several interrelated ways.

God’s Steadfast Love and Compassion

As we saw in the previous article, the OT identifies two primary motives for why God will one day act to end exile. The NT says that these same two motives animated God to send Jesus.

God came in the flesh to end His people’s misery and make good on all His kingdom promises.

First, God promises to end exile because of His steadfast covenant love (Hebrew hesed). This word refers to His covenant fidelity: the Lord still remembers the covenants He made with Abraham and David, and He guaranteed these promises with solemn oaths (Gen. 22:16; Ps. 132:11; Heb. 6:13–18). If God never restored Israel from exile, He could be accused of faithlessness to His promises, a lack of hesed. But because He is “great in hesed(Ex. 34:6), He will one day act on these ancient promises and bring His people out of exile (Lam. 3:32). The end of God’s wrath depends on His fidelity to what He promised the fathers (Mic. 7:18–20).

Thus when Jesus is about to arrive, the NT refers to the Lord’s steadfast covenant love (hesed). Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, celebrated His birth with an extraordinary word of praise. He says in Luke 1:78 that the forerunner (i.e., John the Baptist) has been born, and the promised branch (or “sunrise”; i.e., the Messiah) is about to appear because of the Lord’s “tender mercy” (Greek eleos). But “tender mercy” is probably not the best translation here, for this Greek word often translates hesed in the OT. Zechariah is referring to the Lord’s covenant fidelity. As he had just said, the purpose of this deliverance is “to show the [covenant fidelity, i.e., eleos] promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:72–73).

The second reason for God’s ending exile is closely tied to the first. We would be deeply wrong to think of God as acting to end exile in a grudging manner, simply because He was obligated to do so by His ancient promises. He also ends exile because of His deep compassion. He cares about the anguish of His people, He longs to reverse it, and the OT had said that this compassion would be the great turning point that begins the end of exile (Deut. 4:31; 30:3; 32:36; Hos. 2:23; 11:8; Mic. 7:18–19; Isa. 54:7–8; 60:10; Ps. 79:8; 102:13; etc.).

Thus when Jesus appears, we see many indications that God’s compassion precipitated His coming. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16; see Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:4). Jesus Himself incarnates the Father’s compassion in His many deeds of mercy (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13). God’s vast compassion for us in our exile led Him to act for our deliverance.

Jesus Completes Israel’s Punishment

Second, Jesus ends Israel’s exile by His own suffering. Jesus enters into Israel’s exile so that He can end it.

The gospel of Matthew particularly emphasizes Jesus’ identity as a new “Israel.”4 Jesus is called God’s “son,” as Israel was (Matt. 3:17 see Ex. 4:22). He emerges out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15) and is baptized in the Jordan (3:16), just as Israel was baptized in the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2). But this baptized Israel will fulfill all righteousness (Matt. 3:15). Even though Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days, just as Israel was for forty years (Matt. 4:1–2), Jesus does not give in to temptation. He does not grumble about food, put God to the test, or serve Satan—the very three things Israel did in the wilderness. Jesus then enters the land and proceeds to defeat God’s enemies: not the Canaanites (or Romans) but Satan and his hosts.

But even as Jesus recapitulates Israel’s story and shows Himself to be the true and sinless Israel, He also enters Israel’s story where it stands (i.e., in exile). His life is the new exodus that brings exile to an end.5 Isaiah had promised that one day God would lead Israel out of exile, through the wilderness, and into the land of promise (Isa. 43:16–19; 51:11). In Jesus, God fulfilled both the divine and the human sides of this new exodus. As God had done with the manna, Jesus provided bread in the wilderness (feeding five thousand and then four thousand). As God was the great Healer of the first exodus (Ex. 15:26), so Jesus healed many. As God led Israel out of bondage, so Jesus led us out of bondage and into newness of life (Rom. 6:4–6; Rev. 18:4). As God summoned the twelve tribes to Himself and promulgated His law, so Jesus gathered twelves disciples and promulgated a law on His own divine authority (Matt. 5–7).

Jesus shows Himself to be the true and sinless Israel.

But the greatest surprise is that in Jesus God Himself came to receive the judgment due to Israel. He is the Rock struck with the rod of judgment, issuing in life for His people (John 19:34; see Ex. 17:1–7). He is the true paschal Lamb whose blood causes God’s wrath to “pass over” His people (John 1:29; Rev. 5:9; see Ex. 12:13). His blood simultaneously inaugurated the new and better covenant (Matt. 26:28; see Ex. 24:8). He is the suffering servant, who carried our sorrows and bore our griefs (1 Peter 2:24; see Isa. 52:13–53:12). He has drunk the cup of God’s wrath to the bottom (Matt. 26:39; see Jer. 25:15–29).

The cross was the ultimate expression of exile, where Jesus—who is simultaneously God and the true Israel—endured the Father’s wrath. But because God’s wrath was poured out on Him to the uttermost, the curses of the covenant were fulfilled and exhausted (Gal. 3:13). Exile came to a decisive end when Jesus breathed His last on the cross.

Inaugurated Kingdom

Just as the cross corresponds to exile, the resurrection corresponds to restoration. Everything that the prophets said the restoration would involve, Jesus inaugurated when He rose again and ascended on high. Here is an incomplete list:

  1. Jesus’ resurrection marked the ultimate defeat of all God’s enemies (Col. 2:15; see Isa. 66:14; Jer. 50:18; Dan. 7:11).
  2. Now that Jesus has been raised, the forgiveness of sins may be proclaimed to all nations (Luke 24:47; Acts 13:38; see Jer. 31:34).
  3. God’s people are reconciled to Him. The “divorce” of exile (see Jer. 3:8) has been ended in a new marriage with a resurrected Son and His resurrected virgin bride (Rom. 7:1–4). A “new covenant” has arrived (Luke 22:20; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 9:15; see Jer. 31:31–34), and God’s people now live under the blessings and no longer the curses of the covenant (Matt. 5:3–11; see Deut. 28:1–14).
  4. Beginning with twelve disciples, God’s people are being reunited—northern and southern kingdoms; even all nations (John 10:16; Rev. 5:9; see Isa. 19:25; Jer. 12:16; Ezek. 37:15–28).
  5. The Lord has returned to Zion: that is, the resurrected Son of God has ascended to His throne in the heavenly Jerusalem (Acts 2:34–36; see Isa. 52:8). In the same moment, the Son of David ascended to His throne and now reigns forever (Luke 1:32; Acts 13:33; see Jer. 23:5–6).
  6. The end-times temple has been founded and is being built. God has ordained a new and everlasting priesthood (1 Peter 2:4–6; see Ezek. 40–48).
  7. The people of God have ascended with Christ and have entered into the end-times “land”: the new creation (Eph. 2:6; Heb. 12:22; see Deut. 30:5).
  8. The torah (i.e., God’s teaching) has gone forth from Zion to all the earth (Matt. 28:18–20; see Isa. 2:3).
  9. God has poured out His Spirit on the people of God, and the people of God have been circumcised with a circumcision of the heart, not made by hands, but by the Spirit, and are now enabled to obey from the heart (Rom. 2:28–29; see Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26).
  10. True worship in Spirit and in truth has been established in the heavenly Jerusalem, into which God’s people may enter (John 4:24; Heb. 12:22–24; see Isa. 56:7).

All these benefits, taken together, can be called the “kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15), or the “restoration” (Matt. 19:28), or the “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:1). As Jesus had proclaimed in His inaugural sermon in Luke, exile is over and the kingdom has now arrived in His person and work (Luke 4:15–21; see Matt. 11:2–6). His resurrection marks the beginning of the everlasting and blessed reign of God.

The entire NT is an end-of-exile, beginning-of-restoration story. Every Christian knows that the entire NT centers on the cross and resurrection of Christ. But we have now seen that the cross corresponds to the end of Israel’s exile, and the resurrection is the beginning of the long-awaited restoration. Through His cross and resurrection, Jesus brings Israel’s story to a climax, and now we are living in the new phase promised by the prophets.

But the story is not yet over, and as we consider some of the kingdom promises above, we realize that some remain incomplete. In our next and final article, we will consider the implications of this great redemptive reality for us and see how God will bring His kingdom to completion.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on exile. First post. Third post.

  1. See the helpful surveys in Nicholas G. Piotrowski, “The Concept of Exile in Late Second Temple Judaism: A Review of Recent Scholarship,” Currents in Biblical Research 15 (2017): 214–47; idem, “‘Discern the Word and Understand the Vision’: Ongoing Exile in Second Temple Judaism and Its Relevance for Biblical Theology,” Criswell Theological Review 16 (2018): 21–42. ↩︎
  2. See the texts cited in Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification, NSBT 9 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Apollos, 2000), 22–25. ↩︎
  3. Some authors believe that by the end of 2 Maccabees, this prayer is answered and the exilic condition is reversed (according to the author of 2 Maccabees). Even if this is so, 2 Maccabees still views the period up to the middle of the second century BC as a time of exile. ↩︎
  4. See Joel Kennedy, The Recapitulation of Israel: Use of Israel’s History in Matthew 1:1–4:11, WUNT 2/257 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2008). ↩︎
  5. Watts demonstrates that the gospel of Mark is structured to emphasize Jesus’ work as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s new exodus promise (Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark, WUNT 2/88 [Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1997]). The other gospels also pick up this theme in different ways. In Luke’s gospel, he even uses the Greek word exodos to describe Jesus’ work (Luke 9:31). ↩︎

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