Dean of Master’s Pentecostal Seminary; Adjunct Professor of New Testament

December 2010

Volume 3

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“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”. (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, 12th century Latin hymn)

We sang this haunting carol in my church at the beginning of Advent. I reminded the congregation that, though Israel is the subject of the song, we share the rejoicing and longing conveyed by its lyrics and melody. Because he came to us, we rejoice; because he left us here, we long for a future day. To sing about the return of Israel from exile is to echo our prayer for the Kingdom of God to appear in all its fullness. Our ministry until He comes is an interplay between the chords of hope and longing.


The melancholy mood of the carol recalls the longing of Israel for the fulfilment of God’s promise to make them a great nation. The golden days of a united Israel under King David and Solomon were a millennium in the past for Jews who lived at the time of Christ. The dark days of the exile were a more recent memory. Psalm 137, popularized in 1978 by the pop group Boney M, defines Israel’s despair: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (v. 1). The biblical text tells us they hung their harps on the poplars, for “how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (v. 4).

When the period of history covered in the Old Testament ends, the Persians reign over the land of promise. Due to their benevolence, groups of Jews are allowed to return and rebuild the Temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians and to erect the walls of Jerusalem. (The Temple and fortifications were completed in 516 BC and 444 BC respectively.) Soon thereafter Israel had to contend with another mighty power. Alexander the Great began a grand campaign of military conquest in 334 BC, sweeping away all opposition in his path, including the Persians. Israel had to adjust to a new overlord, who would rule them for the next century and a half. Following the period of Greek rule, Israel enjoyed a short interlude of self-rule (the Hasmonean period) before the Roman general Pompey led his troops into Jerusalem in 63 BC. The Jews would not enjoy independent statehood again until 1948 AD.


Throughout the centuries under Greek and Roman rule, the Jewish people never abandoned their hope for deliverance, though the nature of it did shift its focus. Scrolls, circulating in the two centuries before Christ’s birth, fanned the flames of expectation. These apocalyptic writings, although disparate in their depiction of how the end would come, shared some common characteristics. The hope they expressed was now for the end of the world and that day was expected to come soon. This literature conveys a pessimism about divine resolution within history. Having experienced the power of Greek might and the prowess of Roman rule, the vision of Israel’s ascendancy over their foes had grown dim.

Christians believe the hope of Israel and all humankind is realized in Jesus. His coming inaugurated the fulfilment of the promise, the arrival of the Kingdom of God. We will rejoice this Christmas because he is Immanuel, God with us. The source of our hope and longing is, however, somewhat different than that found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish apocalyptic writings. Jewish expectation was anchored to promise and memory: memory of the golden years of King David and his son Solomon, when the promise of God had taken on national form. Surely God would restore those days. The Christian hope stems from fulfilment and participation: fulfilment on account of Christ’s advent and our participation in the Kingdom.


As Paul describes it, our participation in the Kingdom creates longing, or as he says it in Romans 8, groaning. Because the Kingdom is only partially manifested, groaning is the common response of creation, humankind and the Spirit. In fact, the Spirit (the firstfruits of the Kingdom) causes us to groan. By the presence of the Spirit we enjoy the first taste of the Kingdom harvest, yet this participation has ruined our taste for everything else. Now that we know (in the biblical sense of knowing, by experience) the presence of God in Christ with us through the Spirit, it produces a dissatisfaction in us that will only grow more acute the longer we remain in exile here.

What about Israel? Paul devotes an extensive discussion to the future of his people in Romans 9-11. In a moving finale, Paul describes his hope that the success of the Gentile mission would spur his own people to jealousy. Indeed, he says, the day is coming when not only a remnant will know Jesus, but all Israel will be saved (11.26).

What, then, about us? We minister in a world debilitated by the effects of sin and death, yet we refuse to believe this is as good as it gets. We refuse to give in to the pessimism that the world is going to hell in a handbasket (whatever that means). We do the work the Master assigned us with hope, knowing the Kingdom is being made visible as we cooperate with the Spirit. Yet longing is a primal emotion for us, which expresses itself in frustration because we do not see more fruit. While we gather in our communities of worship and rejoice with those who have entered the Kingdom, hundreds of people are driving by our buildings. We see people healed and families restored, but not everyone and sometimes not our own. We groan in exile. But not without hope, for having tasted of the Kingdom, we know its power and believe what God has begun, he will finish.

On Christmas Eve, our congregation will sing the words from Silent Night: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”


  • Bright, John.The Kingdom of God: the Biblical Concept and its Meaning for the Church. New York : Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953.
  • Bright, John.A History of Israel. Louisville, KY : Westminster J. Knox Press, 2000.
  • VanderKam, James C.An Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI : William B. Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Collins, John J.The Apocalyptic Imagination: an Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. Grand Rapids, MI : William B. Eerdmans, 1998.

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