The Future According to Jesus

by Dr Jay Gary, May 24, 2004

fajtitle_lAre the notions about “Jesus shall reign” best left in the past? What can a Galilean Jew still teach us about creating our future? This essay will 1) propose that Jesus held a three-futures framework, 2) walk through this first-century foresight model, and 3) offer conclusions on how a post-conventional faith can approach the future.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Should we just leave Jesus in our past? Can the church be anything other than a polarizing force in society? Will faith have a future in shaping the centuries to come, or is it doomed to discontent, merely to play the role of the contrarian?

After working on the forefront of Christ and culture for more than two decades, I wonder what Christ will mean to my children’s children, and to the 22nd century.

On one side, I see Jesus’ place in history as established. His life reorganized how we count time, B.C. to A.D. His words shaped our art, literature and culture. His story is inseparably linked to our conception of time and history. In this sense, historian Kenneth Scott Latourette is correct to write, “As the centuries pass the evidence is accumulating that… Jesus is the most influential life that ever lived on this planet.”

Jesus’ place in history is unmovable, but what about the future? Increasingly we see the big business Jesus. He turns up as the bloodied hero in blockbuster movies such as “The Passion of Christ” or the cryptic teacher in novels like the “The DaVinci Code.” If it is not in movies or bestsellers, the business Jesus comes to us in self-help books such as “Jesus, CEO” or “Jesus in Blue Jeans.” You are either repelled by him or drawn to him. Nevertheless, Jesus remains larger than life, not just the pop Jesus, but the Christ who endures.

But can this Jesus illuminate our path into tomorrow? Why should we care how a Palestinian Jew saw the future? It’s obvious that the Hubble telescope reveals more about our universe and a microscope uncovers more about our genetic code of life. Why should we look to Jesus? Beyond his iconic staying power, what is his relationship to our future?

No person in history has called forth more study and reassessment than Jesus. His presence, examined afresh by each generation, continues to challenge his followers and astound scholars. Some scholars today consider Jesus to be little more than a Greek cynic, other see him as a failed doomsday prophet. Few people would associate him with the health of our blue planet. If pressed about Jesus’ view of the future, most would point to his words on heaven and hell, the last judgment and the resurrection, the kingdom of God and second coming.

A preoccupation with millennialism used to shape this religious discourse. One has only to think of the revivalism of Jonathan Edwards, the adventism of William Miller, or the zionism of Cyrus Scofield. For the past few centuries, these contrasting schools of amillennial, postmillennial and premillennial thought have hinged on minute interpretations of a “thousand years” taken from the twentieth chapter of the book of Revelation. While theology has invested in this language, none of these schools have obtained a scholarly consensus in biblical eschatology, the study of last things.

Unfortunately, millenarianism has become just another “fringe” notion in American culture. Bible prophecy is as strange and pliable as the predictions of Nostradamus, the existence of UFOs or machinations about the Illuminati. It’s time to take another look at the man from Galilee, apart from pop culture or conspiracy theories.

Recently I’ve begun to approach this issue of Jesus and our future from a different starting point, by actually looking at how Jesus framed the future for his own contemporaries. Rather than take a retrospective view from the heights of systematic theology, I’ve begun to take a ground-level look at the historical world that Jesus faced, and ask, How did he approach his future as a leader?

Jesus’ Three Futures

fatchart_lWhen Jesus left his carpenter’s bench circa A.D. 27, how would he have seen his own future related to the future of his society? I propose he saw the future as a dynamic of three paths: Conventional, Counter and Creative.

The Conventional future was the mainstream future. This lower line future had 1,500 years of Moses, or ancestral law, behind it. It had 250 years of Alexander the Great, or Greek culture, defining it. It had 100 years of Caesar, or Roman rule, enforcing it. This was the official world of “Second Temple Judaism,” ruled by the Herodians and Sadducees. In other words, the Conventional future for Jesus was the present state of Roman occupation projected into the future.

The Counter future opposed this official future. This future was largely defined by the Pharisees, the loyal opposition to Jewish collaboration with the Roman Empire. The Essenes, and later the Zealots, also shaped this popular resistance to occupation. The Counter future claimed that it, rather than Herod, represented Moses. This future rallied people behind 200 years of Jewish nationalism, represented in the Maccabean revolution of B.C.167.

Jesus saw these two futures, Roman imperialism and Jewish nationalism, on a collision course in his generation if left unchecked. Josephus, the Jewish historian writing sixty years after Jesus, traced the roots of the “zealot” revolution, or Counter future, back to the death of Herod of Great. At the time of Jesus’ birth you didn’t need to be a prophet to realize that trouble was on the horizon. Left to its own, society was facing an impending collapse.

Jesus weighed these two lower-line futures and found them wanting. In view of the “clash of civilizations,” he began to develop a third way, a Creative future that would make all things new.

In contrast with a mainstream or side stream future, this path was an upstream future. Jesus saw this high road transcending the lower lines. It would lead to the ideal, the kingdom of God. It would include the ancient covenant made to Israel, but raise it from a one-nation to a many-nation covenant.

But Jesus’ Creative future called for faith. He and his contemporaries would have to die to the old order before its external collapse. If they did, they would survive the “end of the age.”

Let’s walk through this first-century foresight model in more detail. Keep in mind that our quest is to see Jesus in relation to his future. These three futures are the architecture, the landscape out of which he crafted his gospel. For me, this illuminates the “Jesus I Never Knew,” as well as the “Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love.”

The Conventional Future

If you could choose any time in history to be born, you would not want to be born in the backwaters of first-century Palestine. To use Thomas Hobbes’ words in Leviathan, life then was typically “nasty, brutish, horrible and short.”

This is because the Conventional future of Jesus’ day worked only for the upper echelon of Jewish society, and that comprised no more than five percent of the population. There was no middle class.

In Jesus’ day, the Conventional future told Galilean peasants that “this is the way it is.” In the midst of the occupation of Palestine by foreign Roman legions, the Conventional future of Herod proclaimed that Israel was better off being integrated into the Roman Empire rather than resisting the power of Greek ideas, Roman rule and growing wealth.

The Conventional future, then as now, is always the “official future.” It is “business as usual.” It is society’s top-down story that is heard on Main Street. It tells us just to “stay the course” and things will get better.

fatmap_lThis Conventional future, defined by Herodians and Sadducees, was powered by three “unstoppable” trends, changes sweeping across the eastern Mediterranean. They began to appear a generation before Jesus and didn’t come to their head until a generation after him. These trends were Urbanization, Romanization and Commercialization. They were shaping the cities of Jerusalem, Caesarea and Sepphoris, respectively. They were proclaiming an official future that Palestine was finally joining the world. Let’s look at each of these trends.

1) Urbanization was reshaping Jerusalem, the national center of Israel. After Herod the Great came to power he launched an aggressive campaign to legitimize his reign. Being only a half-Jew, he took a wife, Marianne, from the Hasmonean reign he supplanted, representing Jewish independence. The greatest kings in Israeli history had not only brought peace, but had built the temple. Herod began to emulate this pattern by enlarging the Jewish temple to boost his messianic credentials. Thousands of workers were hired to turn Jerusalem into a world-class city, complete with a Greek gymnasium, hippodrome and royal palaces. By the time he was well into his rebuilding campaign, the Jewish Temple was considered to be a marvel of the Roman world.

Herod’s campaign was costly. He taxed the rural populations to finance his urban program, and thousands of rural peasants relocated to greater Jerusalem to serve the client kingdom. Unlike today’s separation of church and state, religion and government were inseparable back then. When these peasants came to Jerusalem they witnessed the temple aristocracy living as lavishly as any Senator in Rome.

Since Israel took the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the world of archaeology has uncovered several of these ‘Herodian Mansions’ in the Jewish Quarter. These homes were palatial priestly mansions, each two or three stories high, with up to 2,000 square feet of living space.

One mansion is known as the “Burnt House.” You walk down two flights of stairs to a large 800 square foot basement, where a high priest family once ran an incense factory. This room contains the charred remains of tables, pottery and an unused spear, dating back to September of A.D. 70, just forty years after the Cross, when Romans burned the upper city of Jerusalem to the ground. As Jesus looked forward, he saw Herod’s world passing away. Today the Burnt House testifies to what actually happened. Jesus saw the Conventional future of his day would soon be “gone with the wind.”

2) The second trend defining the Conventional future in Jesus’ day was Romanization. This entered the land through the seaport of Caesarea. Starting in B.C. 22, Herod the Great carried out a twelve-year building project to construct a world-class harbor and link the Jewish homeland to the economy of the Roman Empire. Herod’s engineers and thousands of laborers toiled to make the city a marvel of modern architecture and engineering. Josephus claims Caesarea had an artificial harbor that stood in 120 feet of water, supported by hundreds of pile stones sunk into the sea. In addition to a massive harbor and dock storage vaults, Caesarea boasted of a theater, a stadium and lavish royal palace. Great festivities were held in B.C. 10 to mark its completion, including gladiator contests.

At the intersection of the major north-south streets was a massive 10-story temple, dedicated to the goddess Roma and Caesar Augustus. As the king of the Jews, Herod saw no conflict in promoting emperor worship in Caesarea alongside Yahweh worship in Jerusalem.

Caesarea was the yoke linking Palestine to the Roman Empire. Its trade was the source of Herodian wealth. And its walled city garrisoned the Roman legion, enabling the military occupation. In contrast to the ancient “covenantal kingdom,” Herod’s seaport spawned a huge “commercial kingdom” that increased luxury for urban merchants at the expense of the rural poor. Herod’s Caesarea proclaimed that “Mine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.”

3) The third defining trend that Jesus faced was Commercialization. This could literally be seen from Nazareth if one looked north four miles. Concurrent with the birth of Jesus, Herod’s son, Antipas, established Sepphoris as his capital city. From there Antipas imposed on Galilee Roman taxation, alongside the tithe system for the Jewish Temple.

Sepphoris was in the heart of Galilee, perched on a hill “like a little bird,” from which it got its name. Zippori is Hebrew for bird. It had a commanding view of traffic from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. Following the enslavement and crucifixion of much of the population after Herod the Great’s death, the city was rebuilt by Antipas to become the “ornament of all Galilee.”

Like Caesarea, perpendicular streets, a north-south cardo and an east-west decumanus bisected Sepphoris, imposing a Roman grid pattern on the rest of the city. In terms of facades, the city revealed what Galilean villages did not have: white plastered walls, frescoes, mosaics and red roof tiles, all signs of new Jewish wealth which craved Greek culture. All excavations of Sepphoris at the first-century layer have revealed its citizens were primarily Jewish, and its rich villas kept kosher. Like observant Jews of their day, they practiced purity in their upscale homes through ritual baths, the ruins of which are visible today.

Following the pattern of his father in Jerusalem and Caesarea, Antipas confiscated the areas surrounding Sepphoris for use as royal agricultural lands. The nearby village peasants were forced into mono cropping to feed Sepphoris’ population. After bad harvest times came, peasants were forced to sell their land to Antipas, only to stay on their former lands as sharecroppers.

So when Jesus comes proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near,” Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan claims “his audience would have understood his proclamation as relief against the intensive Romanization, urbanization and commercialization that first entered the Jewish homeland through Caesarea.”

The Counter Future

By the time of Jesus, the Jewish homeland had been held by Greek cultural imperialism for over three-hundred years and by direct Roman rule for over a century. Earlier, the Jewish people had won some short-lived victories against Syria, through the Maccabean revolt of 167 B.C., only to fall under Rome’s orbit a century later.

As Crossan and Reed note in Excavating Jesus, the Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for relief from this Conventional future. We might call this popular Jewish resistance the Counter future, because it defined itself over and against the Conventional Herodian future.

If the Conventional future was the future of Jewish aristocrats, the Counter future belonged to the peasants. Rather than a top-down future, it was a bottom-up one.

The Counter future, then as now, is always the “alternative future.” It points out the “rocky road ahead,” if the Conventional future is followed. It explains why society is “facing a historic crisis” and calls on people to “change the course.”

The main “loyal opposition” party making up the Counter future were the Pharisees. Historians have shown that their concern with the ancestral law, or keeping the customs of Moses, was not primarily a form of works righteousness. It was, rather, a genuine concern for the renewal and restoration of the Covenant. Their concern differed from that of the Sadducees, who centered on the Temple.

The Pharisees, or “pious ones,” insisted on strict observance of Jewish laws to counter the growing influence of Greek culture on Jerusalem. They mixed their Torah-piety with a belief that if the Law were fully kept, God would end Israel’s exile, from under Roman jackboots. In this sense the Pharisees held to an end-time notion that God would turn the tables and overthrow Roman occupation if Israel’s “last days” generation kept itself pure from Gentile practices.

While the Pharisees defined the Counter future, they were not alone in shaping Jewish resistance. Richard Horsley has written an accessible overview of popular movements in the time of Jesus called Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs (Trinity Press, 1985, 1999). In this book Horsley shares how Herod the Great garnered a reputation among the Romans by suppressing peasant revolutionaries. He shares a specific instance of how Herod routed out insurgents in B.C. 38 who had taken refuge in the Caves of Arbel, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. These “guerillas” were the Al-Qaeda of their day, and all such messianic uprisings were dealt with ruthlessly.

Zealots, social bandits or troublemakers, though perennially present, did not become an explosive political movement until thirty-five years after Jesus’ death. Israel, however, did have an enduring culture of resistance, defined by either “flight” or “fight” communities.

The most long-lived Counter future sects of Jesus’ day were the Essenes. Most scholars today identify them as the Qumran Community, once located near the Dead Sea. Like the Pharisees, this community broke with the Jerusalem Temple establishment around B.C. 150. Under their “Teacher of Righteousness” they withdrew to the desert, as “Priests-in-Exile,” to wait for a time when God would remove the “Wicked Priest” in Jerusalem.

Today we remember the Qumran Community through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls, discovered in 1947, reveal that the Essenes were a Last Days Community, reading the Hebrew Scriptures as if God was fulfilling them in their day.

But this community in flight eventually turned to fight, as so many disappointed millennial movements do. Their War Scroll anticipated a forty-year war that God’s righteous warriors, the Sons of Light, would fight at the end of the age against the Sons of Darkness.

When the Romans brought pressure on Qumran to disband in A.D. 67, many Essenes took refuge in Masada, mindful of this holy war prophecy. History and the Tenth Roman Legion, however, were no respecters of Jewish lore. In A.D. 74 this last stronghold of the Second Jewish Temple state met its end by suicide.

While aware of “freedom fighters,” Jesus did not embrace the Counter future. He saw both the Conventional and Counter futures as the wide path that would lead to destruction. The clash of these two futures would bring about a great tribulation, unlike any in Israel’s past or future. The wide path would lead to destruction, but the narrow path would lead to life.

The Creative Future

Rejecting both self-serving Jewish collaboration with Rome and rabid Jewish nationalism, Jesus gave himself to find a third way, a path that would take Israel beyond collapse or social breakdown.

Unlike the Counter future, for Jesus faith did not mean a repeat of history. He held out no hope for another “Maccabean Miracle” that the Jewish festival of Chanukah commemorated. He warned that a Zealot-led future would lead to a head on collision with Rome and the collapse of the nation.

He foresaw a similar fate for the Conventional future-the Herodian priests collaborating with Rome. This “official future” and its massive Temple would collapse, with “not one stone being left upon another.”

His new way would break the cycle of violence that had kept Israel in bondage. The cycle of killing fed by state oppression and popular rebellion, or state repression and kinship violence, would be broken.

Jesus saw this cycle of violence fed by rage. He saw his own martyrdom on the Cross as vicarious and preemptive. He would take upon himself Israel’s rage against the Gentiles and defeat it, saving her from the judgment to come.

It is no accident that Jesus grew up in the shadow of Sepphoris. Following a tax revolt in that city at the death of Herod the Great, Sepphoris had been burned to the ground. Over 1,000 of its inhabitants were crucified. It is entirely possible that the younger Jesus grew up hearing stories from survivors of this massacre and determined to do whatever he could to help the nation of Israel avert a similar fate.

Josephus, the late first-century Jewish historian, later recorded that from A.D. 66-74 over one million Jews died in the Roman-Jewish War. Up to 250,000 of those were crucified, something Jesus hoped his death would advert.

While he couldn’t save people from their own folly, he could warn those with ears to hear. Jesus compared the impending national judgment to a harvest time, when the wheat and the chaff would be separated. Those who took no precaution would suffer the carnage of the inevitable Great War. Those who followed his way would be spared. He considered them first fruits that would guarantee a full harvest to follow, a full restoration of Israel and humanity into God’s Covenant.

Jesus expected to be vindicated and promised the same for anyone who followed him in this Creative path. They would be raised up in him, and form the nucleus of the New House of Israel. Seen from this first-century ground-level view, the future Jesus created was beyond calculation. His future grew out of an intuitive understanding of his fate related to Israel’s greatest crisis.

For Jesus, the Creative future was a daring wager. He would lay down his life and leave the nation’s future in the hands of his followers. They would have a generation, or forty years, to gather Israel into his body-his new temple or New Covenant.

As he saw it, death was the only way forward. Either Israel would literally die by the sword, or vicariously die through his death to the lower line futures.

A Forward Looking Faith

What can a Palestinian Jew teach us about creating the future? I would hope you would now answer, “A lot more than I thought!” Jesus’ gospel was not just a referendum on his identity. It was also an open invitation to join a higher road, to tread a more charitable path, which could transform lives and communities.

When he preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus asked others to receive a new mind, or metanoia. He was saying change your mind, because God was changing the times.

Otto Scharmer writes that leadership is “the capacity to shift the inner place from which a system operates.” Jesus was the ultimate turn-around specialist; he understood how to shift the inner place from which society operates. He entered a dead-end world and created an open future. He invites us to go and do likewise.

Can Jesus’ “Three-Futures” be correlated to theology? Yes, but I’ve found there is an advantage to looking also at Jesus from history. My hope is that in its freshness, this model may help you see Jesus’ future and our future more clearly.

Please take this description of “The Future According to Jesus” as tentative, not definitive. I initially developed it as a personal knowledge navigator, to help me relate the cutting edges of Jesus scholarship to the academic field of Futures Study, two worlds in which I enjoy teaching.

Hold these three futures before you, and run various areas of your life through them. Take parenting, for example. Compared to society, do you follow the conventional, counter or creative paths? How has your parenting philosophy changed as you and your children have grown?

fatchart2_lOr take your work; where does your business stand in relationship to its markets? Are you the established Conventional leader? Are you facing upstart competition from a Counter future? Are you pursuing a Creative future, emphasizing innovation from within to create a higher order strategy which would have greater economic and ecological integration?

Or consider your church or congregation. Where would you situate your group’s identity with respect to society? Sociologist Max Weber was the first to describe “church” and “sect” as opposing forces in society. The church will affirm the world even if it compromises itself; the sect will attack the world or retreat from it. His distinctions work out like this: you get born into the church; you later grow up and join a sect. Like a good mother, the church will embrace you out of grace; like a stern father, the sect will make you follow the law. In reflecting on Weber, Ernst Troeltsch added a third category of “mystic,” the one which recreates faith as that new home for the next generation of both “church” and “sect.” How would you tell your spiritual story, past, present and future, using these categories and Jesus’ three futures?

In their book, The Transforming Vision, Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh propose that faith asks four worldview questions: 1) Where are we? 2) Who are we? 3) What’s wrong? and 4) What’s the remedy? For me, this foresight model of Jesus allows us to answer these questions, not just from the past, but also from the emerging future. It allows us to use Jesus’ foresight model as a dynamic lens, a kaleidoscope, related to our forward view.

In summary, here are four take-away lessons to help you take hold of your tomorrows.

1. Don’t take the official future as given. Jesus didn’t consider the future as settled. He thought outside of societal conventions and challenged the status quo.

2. Ruthlessly critique alternative futures. Don’t get carried away by spiritual or political extremism. While a culture of dissent is valuable to our civil society, don’t be molded by discontent.

3. Seek to find new ways that might heal systemic problems. Take an active interest in the whole, not just the parts. Jesus gathered a remnant in view of a full harvest. Rather than focus on the efficiency of the system, look for those novel innovations around which the whole system can transform itself into a higher order.

4. Use Jesus’ futures framework today. Whether in work, family or community, there is a Creative future waiting to be discovered. Strive to be a paradigm pioneer that brings hope to the road ahead, five, ten, or twenty years out. Like Jesus, your preemptive vision, translated into action, can avoid catastrophes and move our world towards post-crisis ideals.

jaygary_sDr. Jay Gary is president of PeakFutures.com, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years Jay has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

For Further Study: 

To appreciate how various centuries have seen different aspects of Jesus’ life, see Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus through the Centuries (Harper & Row, 1985). For a good overview of how Christian millennialism has degenerated in our times, see Richard Abanes’s End-Time Visions: the Road to Armageddon (Broadman & Holman, 1998). For a great overview of Jesus scholarship today, see N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, (IVP, 1999). I adapted my “Three-Futures” of Jesus foresight model from Hardin Tibb’s model in “Global Scenarios for the Millennium.” For an overview of how archaeology illuminates the changes that Jesus faced, see John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed’s Excavating Jesus: Beneath the stones, behind the texts (Harper SanFrancisco, 2001). For a social history of Jesus’ time, explaining various counter-opposing forces, see Richard Horsley’s Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs (Trinity Press Int’l, 1985, 1999). For a popular and illustrated history of the Great War by a military historian, see Apocalypse: the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, AD 66-73 (Tempus, UK: 2002). For more on how Jesus’ prophetic ministry aimed to move Israel beyond this crisis, see an Open Source Theology essay on the “Kingdom of God”. For a conversation among historical Jesus scholars (Allison, Borg, Crossan and Patterson) on whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet or not (i.e. focused on near-future catastrophic or transformation), see The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (Polebridge, 2001, edited by Robert J. Miller). For more on leading from the emerging future see Senge, Scharmer, Jarworski and Flowers’ Presence: human potential and the field of the future (SOL, 2004). For more on reframing the future as a psychological space see Hardin Tibb’s essay on “Making the Future Visible: Psychology, Scenarios and Strategy.”  To experience this article as part of a half-day online seminar, see the workshop I give, ”Future Proof Your Ministry.” I can also give this powerpoint lecture in an online 60-minute format for your group.

For Discussion:

1. How did this essay help you understand Jesus’ world?

2. How would you apply Jesus’ framework to your future?

3. In what ways was Jesus the ultimate turn-around specialist?

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