Jesus’ definition of leadership is not what the political revolutionaries of his day wanted. They wanted to subjugate their enemies. They wanted to turn people into an army that followed their commands. They ironically used the same strategies of the system that oppressed them to fight for change. But Jesus had a different idea of leadership.
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.
Jesus aligned himself with an unpopular path that other would-be kings wouldn’t embrace. Before the Maccabean warlords won their fame for wreaking havoc on oppressive Greek kings in the 2nd Century BCE, a different kind of self-sacrificing leader effectively appealed to God’s just and merciful heart. Instead of resorting to guerrilla warfare, these servant leaders gave up their lives in a cosmic and righteous cry for God to intervene.
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.
Legacy of Violent Kings
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.
Elsewhere in 2 Maccabees, Onias the high priest is praised for his devotion to God and hatred of evil (2 Macc 3:1). He was known for his “modest behavior and good conduct” (2 Macc 4:37). Whereas Judas Maccabees was known for his military victories against a superior foe, Onias was known for his godly character. Even while facing death threats, Onias did not stop standing up for what was right.
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
Daniel’s vision describes three specific periods:
- 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.
Redemptive Suffering of a Few for the Many
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?