A Most Amazing Discovery

Back when I was in college, I took part in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Having grown up in a Christian home that mostly only read the Gospels and Paul, I was puzzled by the haunting lyrics of one chorus. It sounded like it was straight out of the New Testament, but I had never heard it before. I was moved to tears by each line:

Surely, surely, He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.
He was wounded was for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.

These lines obviously describe Christ’s suffering and atonement of our sins, but where did they come from? Puzzled, I searched my Bible. Even now I remember my shock when I learned that these lines were not the work of a New Testament writer, but were from the book of Isaiah, chapter 53:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:3-11, NIV 1984) 

Reading this passage, we can hear its clear and obvious message about Christ. It is so detailed and pointed in its description of Jesus’ death and resurrection that it seems to be a restatement of the basic tenets of the gospel message for the early church.

In fact, it was written almost 700 years before the birth of Christ! I found this a most amazing discovery — that the prophecy about Jesus’ mission on earth could be so clearly laid out, so many centuries before he was born. The New Testament writers refer to it many times, seeing that it so clearly foretold Jesus’ mission on earth.

Yet a More Amazing Discovery

For many years, I was quite thrilled at my Bible study discovery. If I had known my Old Testament better, maybe it would not have been that special. Then I began to learn more about archeology and the discovery of the the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1948, many ancient scrolls and fragments were uncovered in the Essene community of Qumran, in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in Israel.

Before that discovery of the Qumran scrolls, the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament were from about 900 AD. Skeptics had charged that modern Bibles were full of legends inserted by pious believers. They were silenced by the finding of the Dead Sea documents, which were a thousand years older than any other manuscript they had found, from about 100 BC.

Of all the momentous discoveries at Qumran, that one that made scholars’ jaws drop was the “Great Isaiah Scroll,” which contained a complete manuscript of the book of Isaiah. Copies of almost all of the books of the Old Testament had been found, but they were in fragments that needed to be pieced back together. Just a few scrolls were found intact, including two copies of the book of Isaiah. Both the original text of Isaiah and the copy on this scroll predate the birth of Jesus.

The text of Isaiah 53 in this scroll was virtually identical to manuscripts of over a thousand years later, even though it had been hand-copied over and over again. The words I quoted above are actually in the text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The only difference between that text and later copies is the small insertion in brackets, [of life].  The fact that so little change was seen over thousands of years shows the enormous reverence the scribes had for the text.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was tremendously affirming to Christians and Jews who wondered if the biblical text had been accurately preserved. But finding the Isaiah Scroll, and even a copy of Isaiah’s powerful prophecy in chapter 53 that existed a hundred years before Christ is to me the most amazing discovery of all.

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Photos: Mark Kamin [CC BY-SA 2.5], Ken and Nyetta [CC BY 2.0]

The Context of Paul’s Conflict

Paul’s letters to churches have always been a challenge for scholars, since Paul was speaking to the problems that were specific to these churches. Reading them is like listening to one end of a phone conversation. Without knowing the dialogue that has been going on up to this point, it is difficult to decipher what Paul is addressing.

It will help greatly to understand Jewish culture in Paul’s time. Only in the past thirty years have Christian scholars looked at Paul in the light of this information. Before that, theologians relied mainly on Christian traditions about Jews, rather than historical Jewish sources.

Recently there have been many new insights on Paul, and of course much debate. One misconception Christians have had is that the Jews of Paul’s time were trying to earn their way to heaven by gaining merit in the eyes of God. In fact, Jews generally have had a strong sense of their salvation, because of their election as God’s chosen people. The Mishnah (an early Jewish commentary on the Torah) says, “All Israel has a share in the world to come” (Sanh 3:10).

Because of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel, all its members are assured of eternal life, in Jewish thought. (Note that John the Baptist preached against this – see Matthew 3:9.) Jews did spend much time interpreting the laws, but not out of a sense of insecurity. They did so because they felt they should be faithful to this covenant, since they had been chosen to serve God.

Another reason they strictly observed their laws was out of a strong sense of national identity. The Jews were a small minority in the Roman Empire that had gone through much persecution for not adopting Gentile ways. As a reaction to that persecution, they were especially careful to observe laws that separated them from Gentiles. Being circumcised was especially important, because it was what a Gentile proselyte (convert) to Judaism did to show he had come under the covenant of Moses, the Torah.

From the understanding that the Jews alone were God’s chosen people, there was a tendency toward religious elitism. Their picture of Gentiles was that they were degenerate sinners, prone to idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. Jews would not enter a Gentile’s home or eat with one.

The Shock of Gentile Believers

In Acts 10-11, we see that God had to give Peter a special revelation that he was supposed to visit Cornelius the Gentile, because otherwise Peter wouldn’t have done it. God had to tell Peter that what he had declared “clean,” Peter should not declare “unclean.” Other Jews were shocked that Peter had visited him, and even more dumbfounded God had poured out on the Gentile believers the Holy Spirit, the sign of the New Covenant.

This was the controversy at the heart of Paul’s conflict with other Jews too. For the past two thousand years, the Jews alone had been God’s holy people. Now, Paul was actually saying that these filthy sinners, who had never been a part of the covenant of Moses, could be accepted by God. To many, it undermined God’s special relationship with the Jews for Paul to say that a person could be saved apart from their covenant.

To Paul, their insistence that Gentiles be circumcised and become Jews made it pointless that Christ even came. If being Jewish was what saved you, this was not a new gospel at all (Gal 1:7). There had been Jewish evangelists before now who convinced Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes, and this is what they had been preaching up until this time.

Paul’s Opponents

The major concern of Paul’s opponents was that it was necessary for the Gentiles to become Jews in order to be saved, and they did this by becoming circumcised and observing the Mosaic laws. How could God accept them when they were not a part of the covenant he had clearly given? In essence, salvation was dependent upon becoming a Jew, since the Jews were the chosen people.

The emphasis was not so much on legalism, earning their way to God’s favor, like in Martin Luther’s time. Rather it was nationalistic and elitist: only Jews can be saved, therefore, people needed to come under the covenant of Moses to be saved. They needed to observe the law of Moses to be a part of God’s covenant people. Some Judaizers may not even have been believers, but other Jews who told Gentiles that they need to become Jews to be saved.

How did Paul respond? He made two main points. First, it was clear to him that God had accepted Gentiles as Christians because they had been filled with the Holy Spirit when they believed, just as Jews were. The giving of the Holy Spirit was the sign of the New Covenant, and the fact that they had the Spirit meant that they were a part of the covenant. Paul says to the Galatians,

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal 3:2)

Here, Paul is reminding the Galatians that they had received the gift of the Spirit when they came to faith in Christ. Now, they had begun observing Jewish laws out of a worry that they needed to be Jewish to be saved.

The phrase “works of the Law” is especially significant. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the phrase “works of the Torah” was a technical legal term for those laws that marked the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, like circumcision and eating kosher. These laws specifically marked a person for whether he or she was Jewish or not. Paul reminds the Gentiles that they did not receive the Spirit by practicing Judaism, but by believing in Christ, so they should not worry that they need to do that now.

Scholars point out that Paul was in no way rejecting his own Jewish faith or telling the Jewish believers to abandon their covenant. Rather, he tells people to remain what they are, circumcised as Jews or uncircumcised as Gentiles, because in their Messiah Jesus they had been made one.

Sons of Abraham

Paul’s other example to prove that Gentiles could be saved apart from being Jewish was Abraham. Abraham was still an uncircumcised Gentile when God made his covenant with him. God came to him and promised that all nations on earth would be blessed through him.

Abraham was never under the covenantal law God gave to Moses, since God didn’t give it until four hundred years later. Instead, Abraham was considered righteous in God’s eyes because of his “emunah,” faith in God’s promises, and faithfulness in following him.

To Paul, Abraham was the perfect example of God’s grace choosing someone, and them responding in faithfulness. That is what he wants for the Gentile believers: that they become sons of Abraham, showing their faith in God’s love.

Photos: Dimnent Chapel [Public Domain], Domenico Fetti [Public domain], Hult, Adolf, 1869-1943;Augustana synod [from old catalog] [No restrictions]

Paul, the Gentiles and the Jews

At the end of Acts 21, we encounter a text that is important for reading the rest of Paul’s letters. Paul will spend the rest of his career discussing how the Gentile believers relate to the Jews and the Law that God had given them. Let’s look at a text that shows some of the controversies that were going on and how Paul responds:

The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the Law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
 (Acts 21:18-25)

First of all, note that thousands of Jews in Jerusalem believed. The Greek word here is related to “myriads,” which often is translated “tens of thousands.” So there was a very large group of Jewish followers in Jerusalem, one of the areas where Jesus had encountered much opposition.

While it’s difficult to guess the number of Jews who believed in Jesus, an estimate of 10% has been considered reasonable, given the response in Jerusalem. This would mean that there was actually a large favorable response among Jews to Jesus, and that they did not entirely reject Jesus as Messiah. Tensions between Jews who believed and those who didn’t became worse and worse over time, and this is reflected in their persecution of the early believers. Later, as more Gentiles entered the church, the church became more hostile toward the wider Jewish world. Soon it encouraged Jewish believers to leave behind their religious beginnings.

The Jews who did become followers of Jesus were “zealous for the law.” This is a positive statement from James, showing that since they became Jesus’ disciples, they were passionate about observing the Law as Jesus did. Jesus lived perfectly according to the law, and he summarized it with two statements — love the Lord with all of your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. It seems that Jesus’ disciples would have done their best to follow his example. However, they also believed they are under the New Covenant of forgiveness through Jesus’ atoning death. For them, this does not make them less interested in living the way God said he wanted.

Later in the passage, they discuss the fact that even though believing in Jesus has made the Jews more observant of the Torah, the church has decided that it is not necessary for the Gentiles to observe every stricture of the Torah. This has created quite a controversy, and rumors are flying that go beyond the truth. If Paul has told the Gentiles they don’t need to become circumcised Jews, has he been discouraging Jews from observance too? Of course not. He just needs to show the believers in Jerusalem that he has not tried to undermine God’s laws, and still faithfully observes them himself.

This whole text may surprise readers who have believed that Jesus and Paul preached a gospel that negated and disparaged God’s laws. In contrast, they are both careful observers of the Law, and have a positive view of the commandments God gave. Since Jesus summarized the law by saying it taught us how to love God and love other people, how could it be bad? Yet it was not necessary for the Gentiles to observe it as they did.

Israel had been called out as a nation and commanded to be separate from Gentiles on Mt. Sinai. Now, it will be a huge question for them of how God wants Jewish believers to live together with those who are not under his first covenant, but now together with them under the new covenant God made through Christ for the forgiveness of sins. That will be much of what the rest of the New Testament addresses. 

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New LightTo explore this topic more, see chapter 21, “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006, p. 141-44.

For a more detailed treatment of this discussion, see my three part article, “What it Means to Fulfill the Law.”

 

Photo: Dimnent Chapel [Public Domain]  

Giving God Our Best

I have a friend in Baltimore whose business allows him interact often with the Jewish people there. He said that every year for the festival of Sukkot, people would spend $50 or more for a citron, a lemon-like fruit they used in the observance of the harvest of thanksgiving. Some of them sold for as much as $900!

Irritated, he asked why the prices were so high. They explained that the citrons had to be raised in Israel, and then inspected for absolute perfection, and 95 out of 100 were not good enough. Only flawless ones were allowed to be shipped to America and sold for the festival.

Even more amazing is that the people who were buying them were by no means rich, and some of them were very poor indeed! When he asked one Jewish friend why they spent such so much of their meager income on these things, he said, “How can we worship our God with anything less than the very best?”

What an amazing attitude! Is God so important to us as Christians that we would spend our money and time extravagantly on him? Even if buying things to worship him is not our main goal, do we display this attitude about being consumed by a desire to be like Christ, to spread God’s word, and to honor him with our lives instead?

If you think about it, what else would be appropriate? The King of the Universe who set the galaxies spinning and designed our DNA has stooped down to live with us. He has become one of us and suffered and died for our sins. What else but our very lives is appropriate as a response to that?

In Leviticus and Acts

When the God of the universe decides to live among his people, and every aspect of their lives must change because of it. We see this in Leviticus, as God teaches his people how to honor him in their daily activities and worship. We see it also in Acts, when God comes to live in their hearts, the people are now consumed with a desire to tell the good news to everyone around them.

In Leviticus, the gold and silver of the tabernacle and the many sacrifices cost much of their wealth, and the Sabbath days and years will cost them time that could be spent on growing crops, training armies and building their nation. Could it be that the reason why the early believers in Acts had such amazing passion for serving God was because they were used to thinking in terms of using everything they owned to bring him honor? We also see the same attitude toward revering God’s holiness in Acts as in Leviticus. God explains they should bring only their absolute best to him and live pure lives before him.

We saw twice what happens when humans approach the presence of God without treating his holiness with the reverence it deserves. When Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, came too close and offered incense in an inappropriate way, they insulted the God who carefully explained how to come near him, and it cost them their lives (Leviticus 10:1-3).

In Acts, when Ananias and Sapphira bring money to Peter and lie about the price of the field, they brought the Lord a sacrifice laced with their own sin! (Acts 5: 1-6) This was amazingly offensive to God, and once again he takes their lives. As God was beginning this new work, it was especially important that his people revered him as God.

Our Inner Attitude

If God teaches us inner attitudes through the external laws that he gave, what is he teaching us from this? That he wants our absolute best, our first fruits of our time and energy, not our leftovers and flawed material. We fool ourselves if we say that God accepts every gift from us, so anything we bring is fine. The widow who brought two pennies gave an acceptable sacrifice because it was all she had, but if a rich man would have thrown in two pennies, it would have been contemptuous and insulting.

It has been extremely rare that God ever shows his holiness and punishes those who abuse it. Rather, God allows us to come to him with halfhearted prayers, sinful self-absorption and hollow promises to do his will, and he patiently works to transform us into people strong enough to live sacrificially for him.

If we really have learned from Leviticus about God’s holiness and glory, and our need to sacrifice our very best for him, it should make us utterly sold out to please him: to spread the gospel, to serve those around us, to do our work well and bring him honor. Then we will be as effective and fruitful as the believers in Acts, who gave everything they owned to him, who were ready to lose their lives for him. That must be our goal.

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Photos: Johann Werfring [CC BY-SA 3.0], Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Leviticus: God’s Way of Teaching

Leviticus is a challenge. To many it is legalistic, bloody, and impossible to understand. Some come close to committing the heresy of Marcion, an ancient church leader who said that the God of the Old Testament was evil and created laws just to hold people in bondage. Even though the church denounced Marcion, his attitude has lingered to this day.

If we believe the truth that “the Son is the exact representation of the Father,” we must understand that the same powerful love that characterized Christ is also that of his heavenly Father. The fact that Jesus himself was there helping inspire Leviticus should color our reading of the book!

Taking that attitude, let’s look at some broad principles for how to read the laws of the Torah:

God only teaches what people are able to understand. That means that he spoke in a way that made sense to people 3000 years ago, and he modified his style as people changed over time. In Genesis, God let Jacob marry both Leah and Rachel, and both became mothers of the tribes of Israel. But in Leviticus God gave the law that a man should not marry a woman and her sister, and later the New Testament clarifies the fact that God’s ultimate intention is that one man marries one woman.

God didn’t try to change Jacob and his culture all at once, he did it gradually over many years. This is like a parent who speaks one way to a 4 year old, and another way to a 14 year old. God was patient with his people and knew that humans can only change little by little. (Although we think we can handle all his teaching at once!) If we see what people were thinking at the time, and then what God was teaching them in the language they understood, we can see the purpose and importance of his Torah.

God is teaching inner attitudes by shaping outward action. The word Torah, which we translate to “Law,” has a negative sense to many Christians. But the word in Hebrew actually means instruction or guidance. A teacher is a morah and his/her teaching is torah. It has the sense of pointing, as in aiming an arrow to hit a target. God uses his laws to teach his people who he is, what good and evil is, and how to live life the way it was meant to be lived.

Behind every regulation is a principle of what our hearts should be like inwardly. Parents use that kind of teaching with their children too. Think of the fact that we train our children to say “Please” and “Thank You.” We aren’t just doing that to add another rule to their lives or to conform them to social expectations. As a child learns the habit of “please and thank you,” the attitude of consideration of other’s desires and gifts is also learned.

God teaches great truths about himself to these people by how he shows them to live. For instance, when God tells them to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to harvest, he is teaching them to care for the less fortunate. When he gave them the laws of the Sabbath he was teaching them to trust him to take care of them one day out of the week, and that they can rest from their own advancement and rely on him. Both of these ideas were radical ideas of that age, in which the poor were exploited and resting one day out of seven was unheard of.

So what was God teaching them? Of the many things God taught them, the most important was that he is the true God of the Universe, and he is sovereign. The ancient world largely believed in territorial gods that were responsible for the fortune of the peoples who worshiped them. Religious worship was not for the sake of the god, it was to ensure fertility and prosperity of the people.

Idols were set up, and incantations were used to induce the god to enter the idol, and fertility rites used to get the god to cause crops to grow and animals to breed. Behind this is a pagan understanding that gods are able to be manipulated by the power of incantation and magic to obey man’s desire for prosperity. There was also very little thought about the god being moral and decreeing moral laws that we should obey. Their “gods” were to be manipulated into serving man’s needs, but people lived the way they desired.

The true God starts to challenge this in every encounter Israel has with him. He makes a covenant with them that they would obey his laws and not the other way around. He will not be manipulated when they set up the golden calf idol, even though they were trying to invoke his presence through it. He replaces the pagan incantations and fertility rites by giving them detailed instructions on how to make a tabernacle and objects to worship him.

While other cultures had similar forms, a revolutionary change took place: in the middle of the Holy of Holies there was no idol, but rather a chest containing his Covenant as well as evidence of his salvation in the form of manna and Aaron’s budding staff. This amazing concept of an invisible God with moral laws who would save his people was also unimaginable in the ancient world. This was a radical new way of thinking for them.

So as we read Leviticus, the challenge is to find God’s teaching that underlies the ancient laws. Even though we are not under the sacrificial system, and Jesus was the final sacrifice, we can learn from it what God felt was important and apply it to our lives. Because Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, we can tell if we have been learning what God is teaching us if our lives resemble that of Jesus more and more.

Photos: Dimnent chapel [Public domain] 

Faith in Doubtful Times – Learning from the Fall Festivals

Lois Tverberg

(Editors note: This article was written and published in September of 2001, following the tragic events of 9/11.)

In the past couple weeks, I have been reminded of an image from one of the traditions of Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles, that will be celebrated next week. God tells his people to build booths and live in them for seven days, in order to remember how he brought them out of Egypt and kept them safe in the booths they lived in. This was to remind them of how God took care of them so that their feet did not swell and their clothes did not wear out. To this day, Jewish people have observed the tradition of building a sukkah.

In order for people to get the sense of dependency they had while wandering in the wilderness, they established regulations for the booths. The booths should be made out of impermanent materials, cannot be entirely enclosed on all four sides, and at least one star should be visible through the branches used to cover the roof.

It is also traditional to fill the booth with harvest images — such as fruit and vegetables from the garden, to remind one’s self of the abundance of God’s blessings during that year. They are supposed to live in them, or at least eat their meals in it as if it was their home.

As you sit in one of these rickety little booths and see the sky through the branches and feel the wind blow through the walls, you have a strong sense of your own insecurity and lack of protection from the elements.

That is exactly the point: that our security doesn’t come from the strength of the walls that we build around ourselves, it comes from our protection by the Lord. Ironically, at the same time a person feels insecure, there is also a feeling of being overwhelmed with the abundant blessings of the harvest he has given. It is a potent experience of what following God is like — feeling radical insecurity but blessed at the same time. That is what I’ve felt like lately.

The tragic national events of the last couple weeks have made my house feel like a sukkah. My sturdy brick house suddenly seemed as if I could see the stars through the roof and feel the wind through the walls.

When the Twin Towers fell it seemed like the security of living in the United States fell with it. It seems only a matter of time until more tragedy occurs. On top of that, the economy that is worsening is making life difficult or even desperate for many businesses and people who have lost their jobs.

It is hard in a situation like this not to feel abandoned or unloved by God. Indeed, our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, cursed God in their booths and accused him of bringing them out of Egypt in order to destroy them.  They longed for cucumbers and melons and forgot the slavery altogether.

Questions about God’s character frequently arise — is God really good? Does he really have our best interests in mind? Why does God let adversity plague us? How can we really be sure that God is loving and not dispassionate and cruel?

The Lord spoke to me about this about a year ago when I had been asking these same questions. For several days it rained without stopping and my basement flooded, and kept filling with water for weeks. One day I told a new friend of mine, Mary, who told me to mention it to her husband Bruce, a man I hardly knew. I expected that he would give me the number of a plumber. Instead he said “It looks like you need to have a sump pump put in — I’d like to help you with that.”

It turned out to be the world’s most horrendous project. He and his brother-in-law worked on it for weeks at great time and expense to themselves. Every time I came downstairs I was speechless at Bruce’s generosity and good will. I had never met a person of such character who would sacrifice so much of himself to help another he hardly knew. During this time we started talking about working together, and out of it began the ministry of the En-Gedi Resource Center.

I know Bruce didn’t realize the Lord was speaking to me through his actions. God was saying behind it, “Can’t you see my character, Lois? Bruce is a good man, willing to sacrifice a lot to help another he hardly knows. Kal v’homer — How much more did I sacrifice for you when I suffered for you?”

What hit me is that the truest test of a person’s selfless goodwill and love for another is what he is willing to sacrifice of himself for the other. Because of that, the suffering of Christ has once and for all exonerated God from accusation of being evil. God could make us happy and wealthy, but it wouldn’t say nearly much about his love and good intentions toward us as when he himself suffered for us.

I think of Romans 5:8, which says “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Along with that, when he “tabernacled” among us, he felt the same insecurity that we feel.

Another thing I realized is that if Jesus and his Father are one, the sacrificial love of Jesus must be an exact reflection of the love of his Father in heaven. I’m not sure all Christians are convinced of this, because of their suspicion of God as he has revealed himself in our Old Testament. I hear things like “I think the story of the sacrifice of Isaac shows that God is a child abuser!”

If we are convinced that Jesus and his Father are one, how can we level that charge? Would we call Jesus a child abuser? Jesus himself says in John 5:19 “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself, unless it is something he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” Seeing God through the lens of Jesus must make us know that every possible charge of evil against him must be false even in the most difficult stories. We need to re-read difficult scriptures in the light of Christ.

With this thought, I see an irony in another Jewish tradition that comes at this time of year, called Simchat (“sim-KHAHT”) Torah, meaning “Rejoicing with the Torah.” Right after the feast of Sukkot is over, the the Torah scrolls are rewound back to the beginning and the next year’s reading cycle begins at Genesis 1:1 again.

This is an occasion of much rejoicing, and the object of their joy is the fact that God gave them his word, the Torah. They literally dance around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls praising God for the Scriptures. Why is it that they are so radically convinced of God’s goodness even in the passages that Christians find most difficult?

I think this is partly because they have understood the biblical culture better than Western Christians who find them so foreign. As I’ve studied the Torah, I’ve found the loving kindness of God in the books I have avoided, and this has deepened my understanding of the faithfulness of my Father in heaven.

Both the lesson of the Sukkah, God’s protection in the desert, and Simchat Torah, rejoicing in his Word, help answer the insecurity I feel at this time of worry and adversity.

I’m convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, of the goodness of God, even when it is hidden in difficult times or terrible events or even hard texts. His protection in the desert, his giving of his Word, and his very own sacrifice for us finally answer that question once and for all.

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Photos: RonAlmog [CC BY 2.0], Gady Munz Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5]

The Imagery of Leaven

by Lois Tverberg

Many of the images in the Bible are obvious to us. We understand God as a shepherd, or being under the protection of his wings.

One image that is not readily apparent is that of leaven, at least in the modern world. The regulation that for one week each year all leavening had to be removed from dwellings of the Israelites can baffle Western Christians. What is so negative about the little packets of yeast that we use in bread?

It seems especially odd that to celebrate Passover and the week after, during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, it was so necessary to live without yeast. This prohibition is still observed by Jews even until this day.

Learning about food preservation and bread-making in ancient times can help us better understand this imagery. Whenever grain or flour is allowed to get moist, it will acquire a sour taste and get moldy within a few days: the normal process of decay.

This process comes from yeasts and molds in the air that start growing and producing acids. The microbes will also produce carbon dioxide and sometimes alcohol in this process of fermentation. Without steps taken to prevent it, this will always occur over time.

Far back in ancient history someone discovered that at an early point in the process, when the dough is still edible, it can be baked and the acid and bubbles will add texture and flavor to the bread. It normally takes a few days before fermenting and rising occur naturally, but it can be greatly hastened by inoculating the lump of dough with a little of an old lump that has been aging longer.

The tradition started to take out a lump of dough made each day and keep it until the next day, and add to the next batch. Sourdough breads today are still made this way by adding a “starter” dough from an earlier batch. The lump of old dough would become sour and inedible overnight, and if left longer it would become rancid and rotten, but it would be mixed into the new lump of dough to cause it to rise.

Once we see this picture of ancient bread-making, it becomes much more obvious why leavened dough (hametz in Hebrew) became an image of a life contaminated by sin. The decay that would lead to “death” or rottenness was added to each batch.

Without it the dough tends to be sweet, but adding it would give the dough a slightly sour taste that would get stronger and stronger until it was baked. (Ancient breads probably tasted more like sourdough bread.) Think of how sin tends to “sour” our personalities, and also cause us to “puff up” with pride. Eventually, as Adam first found out, sin leads to our decay and death.

Interestingly, we find a motif that seems like original sin: the infection was started in the first lump of dough that was leavened long time ago, like Adam committing the first sin. Each lump of dough after that received its “decay” from the dough made the day before, like sin being transmitted from generation to generation.

Most of the time leaven is a negative image, and Jesus uses it that way when he says “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt 16:6). One time, however, he transformed the image to use it in a positive way, to describe the kingdom of heaven. He says that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, because you can put a very small amount of leavened dough into a very large mass, and it will have a potent effect on the whole thing (Matt 13:33). 

Jesus was describing the powerful effect of the gospel, how even a few faithful believers can transform the world around them. Here he isn’t really referring to the image of decay but the ability of a very small amount of dough to cause a transformation of the whole dough. May we be like leaven in this way!

It’s good to think about what God was saying through leaven, especially around the time of Passover and Easter/Resurrection Day. The most powerful image of leaven is in the Passover meal that Jesus celebrates with his disciples as the Last Supper. When Jesus holds up the bread and says “This is my body” he certainly would have been holding up unleavened bread, or matzah, because the Jews were required to eat the Passover meal with unleavened bread (Deut 16:1-3).

Jesus wasn’t just speaking about his body as bread in general, but as this specific kind of bread, made without leaven, unadulterated by decay. Unlike the rest of humanity, who had been leavened with sin inherited from their fathers, he had not been infected with the “rottenness” that was in the rest of mankind.

By using this image he is saying another thing about himself: that he was fit as a sacrifice because he was free of leaven. All animal sacrifices offered up to God had to be without blemish, and any grain offerings offered up to the Lord by fire had to be free of leaven (Lev. 2:11, 6:17). It seems that when God prohibited his people 1,500 years earlier from eating leaven during Passover, he was thinking ahead to when Jesus would use the bread at the Passover meal to describe himself.

Because he is not leavened with sin, he is a suitable sacrifice, and because he is not infected with decay, he is God’s Holy One who will not see decay and will live on eternally! (Psalm 16:10, Psalm 49:9, Acts 13:34-37).

Paul and the other early Jewish believers understood this picture of leaven. Paul uses this image along with the fact that Passover came on the first day of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread to describe how Jesus’ sacrifice should enable us to live righteously:

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:6-8)

May we all live transformed, unleavened lives!

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Photos: joshbousel [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0], Michael W. May [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], Eczebulun [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Gospel as a Year of Jubilee

by Lois Tverberg

In Leviticus, we read an intriguing law that God gave Israel about observing a year of Jubilee:

‘You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. ‘You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. ‘You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. ‘You shall have the fiftieth year as a jubilee; you shall not sow, nor reap its aftergrowth, nor gather in from its untrimmed vines. (Lev 25:8 – 11)

God proclaimed that every seventh year was to be a sabbath for the land: crops were not to be planted, and they were to live on what God had provided before that time and what grew up by itself.

After seven sabbath years came a year of Jubilee, which along with being a Sabbath for the land, also was a “year of release.” This meant that all Israelites who were in bondage were freed, and anyone who had sold his ancestral property would receive it back, and all debts were forgiven. The word “Jubilee” comes from the word Yovel, a Hebrew word for the ram’s horn that was used to proclaim the year.

Another name for it was a “year of release (deror).”  The Hebrew word deror means “release” or “liberty.” Early Americans, who knew their Bibles better than we do, placed Leviticus 25:10 on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”

Our founding fathers found inspiration in the year of Jubilee as they were establishing the United States. What did they find so special about this concept?

The Purpose of the Year of Jubilee

As part of God’s covenant with Israel, he promised to give the Israelites the land of Canaan. After the conquest of the land, it was divided among the tribes so that each family had its own share. In the ancient world, owning land was greatly prized because it was a source of food, income and security.

In that economy where people depended on the crops they raised, if a family had a bad harvest and ran out of food, they were forced to go into debt or even sell their land. If they couldn’t recover but fell further behind, they would have to sell themselves into slavery or leave the country, like Naomi and Elimelech in the book of Ruth.

People did not borrow money and sell land for business purposes, they did it only out of desperate economic need. So the Jubilee was for one main purpose — to provide for the poor who had gone into debt or lost their land, so that they would be able to start over again. Without it, the wealthy would always do better in bad years, and the land would tend to move into their hands while those who had lost their land would become permanently enslaved.

Another effect of the Jubilee would be to stop the destruction of families. If a man lost his land and sold himself and his family into slavery, or if he moved out of the country, he would likely never see his family together again. Part of the reason Naomi was distraught was because not only had she lost her hope for future descendants, but by leaving Israel, she also lost her family and past. When she returned, she was reunited with her family.

The year of Jubilee was to be a year that people returned home and families were brought together again.

The evidence suggests that Israel never observed the year of Jubilee. In 2 Chronicles it reports that they never allowed the land to have its Sabbath every seventh year, and if they never did that, they most likely never observed the year of Jubilee either. Several of the prophets lament the exploitation of the poor by the rich, which also hints that they never observed a Jubilee year.

There is, however, evidence from other Middle Eastern countries that years of release were proclaimed in ancient times when a new king came into power. It would be a way to ensure support from the masses when a king would declare all debts void and set free all those in bondage to debt.

It is interesting that the prophets thought of this association of a year of Jubilee with the coming of the Messiah. The primary image of the Messiah was that he would be a king like David, so just as the new kings of other countries declared a Jubilee when they came into power, the Messianic king would as well. Isaiah says:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)

This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year. Each phrase is about how great the “year of the Lord’s favor” will be to those who have been imprisoned or enslaved because of their debt. The king will let them go home and start life over, to their great joy.

Jesus and the Year of Jubilee

In Luke 4, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus reads the passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in his hometown, and he says “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!” his audience would have heard this as an obvious claim to be the Messiah who has now come into power.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he uses images from the year of Jubilee, but he takes the image of the poor person set free from debt, and uses debt as a metaphor of sin. For instance, when the sinful woman comes and washes his feet with her tears and Simon, his host, wonders if he knows what a sinner she is, he tells the parable:

Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (Luke 7:41-43)

The poor who are set free in the Messianic kingdom are the poor in spirit, those who know they are in debt to God because of their sin. So the “good news of the kingdom of God” is that the Messianic King has come, and has declared complete forgiveness of debt — sin —for those who will repent and enter his kingdom. It is good news to the poor rather than to the rich who don’t see that they need to be forgiven.

We see in Jesus’ use of the picture of the Jubilee the greatest picture of God’s grace through Christ. Those in prison are those who are under a crushing debt they could never repay. We see Jesus, the new king, setting prisoners free of debt that they owe because of their sin. Through Jesus’ work on the cross, those who become a part of his Kingdom receive a forgiveness of a debt they cannot repay themselves so that they can start over as new person.

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Photos: Tony the Misfit on Flickr [CC BY 2.0], Nitin Bhosale on UnsplashPeter Paul Rubens [Public domain]

Raise Up Many Disciples!

by Lois Tverberg

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:19)

Jesus’ final words were those of what we call the Great Commission — to make disciples of the whole world. But what is a disciple? The ancient, Hebraic picture Jesus had of raising disciples was unique to his Jewish culture. By learning about this practice, we gain fresh insight into how Jesus intended that we fulfill his command.

Jesus lived in a deeply religious culture that valued biblical understanding more than anything else. To become a great rabbi was the highest goal possible, and just to be a disciple of a famous rabbi was an honor. All boys studied and memorized the scriptures until age twelve, and then learned a trade after that. Only a small minority could keep studying, and only a very few were able to go on to learn with a rabbi.

Rabbis acted as wandering expositors who taught in synagogues and homes, and outdoors when a crowd gathered. They taught general audiences, and also had a small band of disciples who lived with them and followed them everywhere. They traveled from town to town teaching, because no mass-communication was available.

They often practiced a trade of their own, but when traveling they were dependent on the hospitality of the community. Indeed, it was forbidden to charge money to teach, but people were expected to support them and invite them into their homes.

Even to the present day, Judaism retains a tradition of discipleship. When Jewish rabbis are ordained, they are commissioned to “Raise up many disciples.” This is the first verse of Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers), from the Mishnah, the Jewish compendium of laws and sayings from around Jesus’ time. Texts like this have much to say about the rabbinic method for raising disciples. Another passage that describes discipleship is this:

Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily. (Avot 1:4)

This text casts light on several stories from Jesus’ ministry in the gospels. Mary, Martha and Lazarus opened their home to Jesus in the tradition of showing hospitality toward rabbis and disciples. Their house would also have served as a place for meetings for him to teach small groups.

We also read that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” to learn from him (Luke 10:39), which may be the sense of the phrase “cover yourself in the dust of their feet.” The phrase may also have meant to walk behind him to listen to him teach, as Jesus’ disciples would have done. On the unpaved roads in Israel, they literally would have been covered in their rabbi’s dust. (1)

What was expected of rabbis and disciples?

Rabbis were expected not only to be greatly knowledgeable about the Bible, but to live exemplary lives to show that they had taken the scriptures to heart. The objective of their teaching was to instill in their disciples both the knowledge and desire to live by God’s word. It was said, “If the teacher is like an angel of the Lord, they will seek Torah from him. If not, they will not seek Torah from him” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 15b).

The disciple’s goal was to gain the rabbi’s understanding, and even more importantly, to become like him in character. It was expected that when the student became mature enough, he would take his rabbi’s teaching out to the community, add his own understanding to it, and raise up disciples of his own.

A disciple was expected to leave family and job behind to join the rabbi in his austere lifestyle. They would live twenty-four hours a day together, walking from town to town, teaching, working, eating, and studying. As they lived together, they would discuss the scriptures and apply them to their lives.

The disciples were supposed to be the rabbi’s servants, submitting to his authority while they assisted him in his tasks. Indeed, the word “rabbi” means “my master,” and was a term of great respect, the same title that a slave would use to address his owner.

This sheds new light on the story of when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Jesus was entitled to having them wash his feet, not the other way around! By his actions he was teaching them a critical lesson in humility — that the one most deserving of being served is himself serving, while they were arguing who is the greatest. Jesus was using typical rabbinic technique: he didn’t just lecture, he used his own behavior as an example.

The rabbi-disciple relationship was very intimate. The rabbi was considered to be closer than a father to his disciples, and disciples were sometimes called “sons.” When Peter said “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you,” he was reflecting the deep love and commitment that disciples had for their rabbi (Matt. 26:35).

In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. Jesus’ insistence that his disciples leave everything behind to follow him would not have been considered extreme in that culture. They held up the image of Elisha as a model of a disciple’s commitment, who burned his plow and left everything to become Elijah’s disciple (1 Kings 19). After Elisha had lived with Elijah and served him for many years, he received Elijah’s authority to go out as his successor, as the disciples did from Jesus.

What light does this shed on the Great Commission?

Jesus’ eastern method of discipleship gives us a new picture of what he called us to do. Our Western model focuses mainly on the gospel as information, and our goal is to be a person of correct understanding. We focus mainly on spreading information about Jesus, not on living our life like him and inspiring others to do the same.

While it is important to teach and defend truth, Jesus’ method of discipleship is much more than that. He began his Kingdom by walking and living with disciples, to show them how to be like him. Then they went out and made disciples, doing their best to imitate Jesus and show others by their own example.

Jesus expects his kingdom will be built in this way: as each person grows in maturity, they live their lives transparently before others, counseling them on what they have learned about following Christ. The kingdom is built primarily through these close relationships of learning, living and teaching.

Paul uses the same model of discipleship in his ministry. He said,

…in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Cor 4:15-17)

We can hear that Paul’s goal for the Corinthians is that they become disciples, who change their lives to be like Christ, not just learn the correct beliefs. Using rabbinic method, he likens himself as a father to them, and he send his disciple Timothy, who he calls “his son.” He wants them to learn by the example of Timothy about his own way of life, which is a reflection of Jesus’ teaching. Paul is using this “whole person” method of evangelism to transform their lives, not just their minds, to reflect the truth.

Through this model of discipleship, we see that Jesus isn’t just interested in having our minds. He wants our hearts and lives too. Once our lives reflect what our minds believe, then the belief has actually reached our hearts. Then our passion for following him becomes a loud witness that inspires others to do the same.

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SittingTo further explore the rabbi/disciple relationship and its implications for Christians today, see chapter 4, “Following the Rabbi” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 51-65.

New Light on the Difficult Words of JesusFor further reading on discipleship in the first century, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006.

 

 

 

(1) Mishnah, Avot 1:4, attributed to Yose ben Yoezer, about 180 BCE. An in-depth discussion of being “covered in the dust of one’s rabbi” can be found at this link.

Photos: Christ Great Commission icon [CC BY-SA 2.0], Duccio di Buoninsegna [Public domain], Ford Madox Brown [Public domain], Wikipedia