But there’s another piece that is not so clear in these passages–an important dynamic in early Judaism that suffuses the NT.
E. P. Sanders described the expectations of early Jewish people as “restoration eschatology.” After the return from exile didn’t quite come together as anticipated; after the Persians and Medes and Greeks and Romans continued to rule the Land for centuries; after the Temple was pitiful and then all gussied up by a half-Jew (at best)–after the unfolding of Israel’s story made it clear that no earthly course of events could turn the tide of history in Israel’s favor, the expectations were translated to a cosmic scale.
God would have to intervene dramatically. The End of business as usual would have to come by God’s hand.
But these two dynamics weren’t separate. The people who were suffering persecution and needed rescue from the kings of the earth looked to the God of Israel to do what is right; and, they looked for an eschatological visitation to be brought about through the suffering of the faithful.
The suffering righteous are not merely the persecuted. Theirs are the labor pains that usher in the age to come.
The faithful not only look back to the suffering of the Maccabees as ushering in a worldly deliverance, they begin to frame the future in similar terms. When the righteous suffer in the time of the great tribulation, God will bring about the final, eschatological deliverance of God’s people, making all things new and setting the cosmos to rights.
And so, when Jesus hangs on the cross, we read of the cosmic portents: the sun being darkened at midday. The earthquake. The rocks splitting. The dead rising. Jesus’ death is both literally and figuratively an earth-shattering event.
The ages have turned.
The new creation has dawned.
God’s faithful one has suffered, experiencing in himself the labor pangs that give birth to the age to come.
All of which, of course, makes this the best moment in Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ: