To understand how Jesus leads, we must understand what kind of leaders were rallying people to their cause in first-century Israel. He wasn’t the only one claiming to be the Messiah. Many self-proclaimed kings were carving out what they thought would create God’s kingdom on earth. So he had to boldly demonstrate what leaders in God’s economy really did.
The 2nd Century BCE leaders who sacrificed their lives defined a path for future Messiahs that sharply contrasted the strategy of political revolutionaries. Their undeserved suffering to death became emblematic of faithful leadership long before Jesus spoke his defiant definition of servant leadership: “I did not come to be served, but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.” For those of us who want to follow Jesus, we should carefully explore the kind of counter-cultural path he blazed to know what kind of life he has called us to live.
Jesus did not get his model of leadership from the messianic pretenders of his day. Other would-be kings that Josephus describes during the first Century had one clear motivation: power. Judas, the son of Ezekias, is a good example. Josephus notes, “He caused fear in everyone by plundering those he encountered in his craving for greater power and in his zealous pursuit of royal rank” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.272). He wanted power and a crown. Revolutionary leaders like Judas declared themselves king and were bent on building their kingdom through violence. They defined a path to power that Jesus ultimately rejected.
The violent revolutionaries of Jesus’ generation were inspired by the 200-year old stories of the Maccabean revolt. You can read those stories in 1 & 2 Maccabees. The revolt’s leader Judas Maccabees rebelled against the Greek rulers who tried to extinguish their faith, and effectively employed guerrilla warfare tactics. The scrappy rebels eventually forced the Greek ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, to cut a deal with them so he could turn his attention to internal affairs. As a result, Maccabean descendants became rulers of Judea. And revolutionaries in Jesus’ day hoped their attacks on Roman troops would have the same outcome.
But Jesus took a different route to his coronation. He was inspired by a different path to purchasing freedom for his people. The example came from the Maccabean era, but not from the Maccabean generals. His inspiration came from old priests who died for what they believed in and the people who followed their example.
Onias, The Suffering Messiah
During the Maccabean revolt, the military leader Judas Maccabees motivated his army with a vision of a heroic high priest who lost both his position as priest and then his life in defense of proper worship. 2 Maccabees 15:12 describes Onias the priest in exemplary terms:
In his vision, Judas saw Onias, who had been high priest and was virtuous, good, modest in all things, gentle of manners, and well-spoken. From childhood he had learned all things that properly belong to a good moral life. This man had his hands extended to pray for the entire nation of the Jews.
The political opponents of Onias in the 2nd Century BCE first had him deposed from his position of high priest and ultimately killed after he publicly accused a subsequent high priest of robbing the Temple to pay for political favor. The tragedy of his undeserved death was mourned by Jews and Gentiles alike.
The significance of Onias’s death was so great that Daniel’s prophecy of the events leading up to the successful Maccabean revolt even mentions his death. Daniel 9 divides up Israel’s history after the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem around 600 BCE into 3 periods. Daniel pinpoints the death of Onias, the “anointed one” (anointed one = Messiah), as the critical event at the end of the second period. Remember both kings and high priests were anointed with oil and therefore could be given the title Messiah.
There will be seven weeks from the moment the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until a leader is anointed. And for sixty-two weeks the city will be rebuilt with a courtyard and a moat. But in difficult times, after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one will be eliminated and disappear. The army of a future leader will destroy the city and the sanctuary. His end will come in a flood, but devastations will be decreed until the end of the war. For one week, he will make a strong covenant with many people. For a half-week, he will stop both sacrifices and offerings. In their place will be the desolating monstrosities until the decreed destruction sweeps over the devastator. — Daniel 9:25-27
- Jerusalem with no anointed leader: 49 years (7 weeks of years) from 586 BCE when the final king of Jerusalem was taken into exile to 537 BCE when a new leader was appointed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it under Cyrus the Persian’s rule.
- Jerusalem suffering for its sins against God: 434 years (62 weeks of years) from the first Babylonian invasion in 605 BCE to 170 BCE when Onias the “anointed one” was killed, or as Daniel 9:26 says “eliminated and disappeared.”
- The final struggle against the last Greek ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, who oppressed Jerusalem: 7 years (or 1 week of years in Daniel’s vision) from Onias’s death in 170 BCE to an agreement with Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 BCE that allowed Jerusalem to rule itself independently again.
The death of Onias initiated the final 7 years of what Daniel 9:24 calls Israel’s period “to put an end to their sins, to atone for their guilt.” Does that sound familiar? It is the same purpose that Jesus’ own suffering accomplished.
Jesus’ view of leadership grew out of the legacy of Onias and the saints who followed his faithful path to death. Jesus was no military leader who slaughtered his enemies, but rather he invoked God’s mercy by being slaughtered by them. He knew his unfair fate would cover the sins of many who had been unfaithful. It would demonstrate his righteousness and provoke God to free his people from the consequences of their sin.
In the first century, Jews continued to expound on the idea of this redemptive suffering where a few righteous people could die for the benefit of many. The stories of righteous suffering from 170-164 BCE grew into an entire book about the unjust suffering of righteous people in the final 7 years of Jerusalem’s struggle against foreign powers: 4 Maccabees. 4 Maccabees was likely composed toward the end of the first century when the Gospels were written. And the parallels between the purpose of Jesus’ suffering in the Gospels and the suffering of Jews in 4 Maccabees are striking and instructive.
4 Maccabees essentially provides extended narrative and commentary on ideas introduced in the (mostly) historical account of 2 Maccabees. The two clearest statements in 2 Maccabees about the atoning sacrifice of human lives are found in chapter seven, when righteous members of a family that were killed for their faith proclaim the purpose of their deaths at the hands of their oppressors:
- “You may kill us, but the King of the universe will raise us from the dead and give us eternal life, because we have obeyed his laws.”— 2 Maccabees 7:9
- “I now give up my body and my life for the laws of our ancestors, just as my brothers did. But I also beg God to show mercy to his people quickly and to torture you until you are forced to acknowledge that he alone is God. May my brothers and I be the last to suffer the anger of Almighty God, which he has justly brought upon our entire nation.” (2 Maccabees 7:37-38)
These statements were made by people who faced a deadly decision: either (1) reject God and live or (2) remain faithful and die. They all believed that their undeserved death could wrap up God’s punishment for Israel’s sins and lead to their resurrection. Does that sound familiar?
4 Maccabees recounts the final testimony of the priest Eleazar, a mother, and her seven sons as they are tortured to death (4 Maccabees 1:7-9). 4 Maccabees says their resolve in the face of death was inspired by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (13:9-10), Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed by Abraham (13:12), and by Daniel in the lion’s den (16:21). They embody Israel’s long history of righteous sufferers ready to do what God wanted, even if it cost them their lives.
The most instructive takeaways from 4 Maccabees are the numerous parallels to the Gospels. Let me summarize the top 10 parallels that show the theological tradition into which the story of Jesus’ suffering fits:
because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.
The same type of destruction came to Jewish leaders in Jerusalem who killed Jesus. Within a generation after Jesus died, Rome invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the regime that orchestrated his death. And his blood freed every follower from their sins. Jesus didn’t build an army and establish an independent Jewish state. He gave up his life to establish an eternal and global kingdom of the redeemed.
Lead Servants Change the World
When Jesus discarded the military model that political revolutionaries in his day embodied and instead embraced the redemptive path of Maccabean era martyrs, he established his pattern for leadership. He came to serve and not to be served. His disciples must therefore be “lead sacrificers” rather than leaders who rally other people to serve them in ways they themselves would not.
Jesus ultimately redefined what people expected the “Son of Man” to do. Daniel 7:14 envisioned a time when all nations would serve the Son of Man, but Jesus says the “Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” Jesus combined the role of Isaiah’s “suffering servant” with Daniel’s “son of man.” Isaiah 53:11 defines the greater purpose of the servant’s suffering: “My Servant will justify the many, since He will bear their iniquities.”
Jesus rescued the many by deciding not to rescue himself. He suffered undeservingly to invoke God’s mercy for all. In doing so, he carved a path for all his followers to bring redemption to the world by sacrificing themselves for the cause. It is not an easy path to follow, but it is his plan to change the world. It’s why he told his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
Any Christian leader who chases political positions to force the world to change through policy or power has missed Jesus’ path. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t use political power to change the world. We can’t vote Jesus’ kingdom to come. Our position may be a king or a member of congress, but change must be earned through selfless service and not power plays. The kingdom comes as we embrace Jesus’ way of demonstrating love, undermining injustice, and staying faithful, even if it kills us. Admittedly, in our world, the more common consequences are losing your job, getting kicked out of the club, and condemned on social media. Those consequences have real economic and social pain.
I rarely have the courage to walk that road, but Jesus has showed us how. It is a sobering path to follow, but we must each answer the invitation from Jesus every day. Are you ready and willing to serve others, even if it means losing the life our world tells us we should be selfishly fighting for?