Atoning for the Nation

by Lois Tverberg

Atoning for the NationFrom that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Matthew 16:21

When modern Jews and Christians discuss the role of the Messiah, Christians often bring up the idea that he would atone for the sins of his people. Jews protest, and often say that there is no idea that the death of one person can atone for the sins of others in Judaism.

Are Christians reading the New Testament through the eyes of a later, foreign theology? If we look at 2 Maccabees, which describes the Maccabean revolt in 172 BC, we find a surprising insight. 1 There we find a story about a Jewish woman and her seven sons who refused to publically reject their faith in God, and each of the brothers is tortured to death for his faith. These are the final words of the last brother to the emperor who is persecuting them:

For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.
(2 Maccabees 7:36-38)

The last line here is quite fascinating. The speaker expected that somehow, through the suffering of himself and his brothers, they would bring about God’s forgiveness of their nation. Likely he is thinking of Isaiah 53 that talks about the suffering servant whose death atones for the nation.

The next chapter describes the Maccabean revolt and relays how they prayed that God would remember all the suffering of the Jews who had tried to be faithful to his laws yet were murdered in spite of it. We read,

“As soon as Maccabeus got his army organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy.” (2 Maccabees 8:5)

The text implies that the suffering of the seven brothers and others was indeed effective. It had caused God to forgive his people and come to their aid, allowing them to regain control of the Temple. This victory, celebrated in Jesus’ time as the “Feast of Dedication,” today is celebrated as Hanukkah. This helps us better understand the passage in John:

At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22-24)

Knowing more about the Maccabean victory helps us understand why people were questioning Jesus about whether he was the Messiah or not. At this celebration they would be mindful of the events of generations before, when they were being persecuted by the Greeks for their faith. This time the Jewish nation was undergoing great suffering at the hands of the Romans, and they wondered if Jesus was going to end God’s wrath and deliver them from that too.

It also helps us understand why the first question that the disciples asked the risen Christ was, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) If the Maccabees had gained victory because of the death of a few of the faithful, how much more did they expect that if the Messiah had come and suffered and died for his people, and God had raised him from the dead, the final victory was certainly at hand.

They didn’t understand yet that God’s victory through the atonement of Christ would not only be for their nation, but for a kingdom that would reach the whole world, purchasing eternal life for all who believed.


1 The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees are from the apocrypha, a group of texts that are not included in either the Jewish or Protestant canons of Scripture, although they are included in the Catholic Bible. Whether or not one believes they are inspired, they are often very helpful in understanding the context of Jesus because many of them were written shortly before his time and reflect the Jewish thinking of his day.

Photo: Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai  and Chenspec