Jesus’ View of Pacifism

(Chapter excerpt from New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, with permission.)


The idea that Jesus taught pacifism arose primarily due to the misunderstanding of a number of his sayings. When viewed from a Jewish perspective, the gospel passages on which pacifism is based point to a quite different conclusion.

Many people over the years have seen Jesus as a pacifist—and for good reason. Here was a man who apparently was willing to die rather than defend himself, a man who taught his disciples not to kill, not to resist evil, to love their enemies, not to fear those who kill the body, and that only those who are willing to lose their lives will be able to save them.1 Jesus’ teachings seem very much like those of such popular pacifists as Tolstoy and Gandhi, and indeed, Tolstoy based his views on gospel passages.2

But did Jesus teach that it is wrong to defend oneself against attack? Did he really mean that we should not resist evil? Such a view seems to contradict what we read elsewhere in the Bible. In Romans 12:9, for example, Paul says that one should “hate what is evil,” and in James 4:7 we read that we are to “resist the devil.” It is clear from passages in Luke 22 that Jesus’ disciples were armed,3 and Jesus himself advised them to purchase swords.4

These apparent contradictions may be reconciled by recognizing the Hebraic nuances of the gospel texts, and by developing a deeper understanding of the Jewish background to Jesus’ words.

Kill or Murder?

One verse that is commonly cited in support of Jesus’ pacifism is Matthew 5:21, which most English versions of the Bible render, “You shall not kill.” The Greek word translated “kill” in this passage is a form of the verb phoneuo. This verb was always used as the equivalent of the Hebrew verb ratsah in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Ratsah is the word used in the sixth commandment in both Exodus 20:13 and its parallel, Deuteronomy 5:17. It seems quite certain that in Matthew 5:21 Jesus was quoting the sixth commandment.

The words phoneuo and ratsah are both ambiguous and can mean either “kill” or “murder,” depending upon the context. However, God himself commanded capital punishment for such crimes as deliberate murder (Ex 21:12–15), rape (Deut 22:25–26), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22), sorcery (Ex 22:18), and many other crimes. The sixth commandment, therefore, must be a prohibition against murder, not killing as such.

In spite of this, the King James Version of 1611, and the revisions of 1885 (Revised Version) and 1952 (Revised Standard Version), used “kill” rather than “murder” in translating Jesus’ quotation of this commandment.5 Although most recent translations of the Bible have corrected this mistake,6 the use of “kill” in the King James Version and its successors has strongly influenced many English-speaking Christians’ views of self-defense.

Another saying of Jesus on which his supposed pacifism is based is found in Matthew 5:39a. It is usually translated, “Do not resist evil,” or “Do not resist one who is evil.” However, when Jesus’ saying is translated back into Hebrew, it is seen to be a quotation of a well-known Hebrew proverb that appears with slight variations in Psalms 37:1, 8 and Proverbs 24:19.7

This Hebrew maxim is usually translated, “Do not fret because of evildoers,” or “Do not be vexed by evildoers.” Bible translators apparently have supposed from the contexts of this maxim in Psalm 37 and Proverbs 24, which emphasize that evildoers will be destroyed, that the righteous should not be concerned about evildoers or pay them any attention.

This supposition is strengthened by the second half of Psalms 37:1 that, as it is usually translated, advises that one should not be envious of such evildoers. It thus appears that the verb translated “fret” or “be vexed” is correctly translated. However, elsewhere in the Bible this verb always seems to have some sense of the meaning “anger.”8 Furthermore, the two parallels to this verb in Psalms 37:8, both synonyms for anger, suggest that the verb in Matthew 5 must also have that meaning.

The verb in question is from the root h-r-h, whose basic meaning is “burn.” From this root meaning is derived “anger,” a sense that all Hebrew words from this root have in common. (Note that in English also, many verbs expressing anger have something to do with fire or burning—be hot, burn, boil, flare up.) In some occurrences of this root, anger is a result of jealousy or rivalry. Saul’s jealousy of David caused him to fly into a rage (1 Sam 20:7, 30). This nuance of h-r-h is also reflected in the use of “contend” in Isaiah 41:11: “Shamed and chagrined shall be all who contend with you” (JPS).

The particular form of the verb used in our proverb is a form for intensive action and thus expresses a passionate anger. This furious anger leads to a response in kind. Such anger results in a rivalry to see who can get the better of the other, and in each round of the competition the level of anger and violence rises. This amounts to responding to evil on its own terms, to competing in doing wrong with those who wrong us.

Do Not Try to Outdo Evildoers

The New English Bible’s translation of Psalms 37:1 and 37:8 is unique: “Do not strive to outdo the evildoers or emulate those who do wrong. For like grass they soon wither and fade like the green of spring”; “Be angry no more, have done with wrath; strive not to outdo in evildoing.” This seems to be the only version of the Bible that reflects the Hebrew “anger” verb’s nuance of rivalry or competition.

Likewise, the Good News Bible is apparently the only translation of the New Testament that uses “revenge,” or anything similar, to render Matthew 5:38–39:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who does you wrong. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too.

It is surprising there are not other versions that translate in the same way. Following “But I tell you,” the context demands “Do not take revenge,” since the first part of verse 39 speaks of “an eye for an eye,” in other words, punishment that is a response in kind.

In idiomatic English, Matthew 5:39a might read simply, “Don’t try to get even with evildoers.”9 Not “competing” with evildoers is very different from not resisting evildoers. Jesus was not teaching that one should submit to evil, but that one should not seek revenge. Jesus’ statement has nothing to do with confronting a murderer or facing an enemy on the field of battle. As Proverbs 24:29 says, “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me. I will pay the man back for what he has done.’”

English mistranslation of Matthew 5:39a has created a theological contradiction, but when Jesus’ saying is correctly understood, it harmonizes beautifully with other New Testament passages:

See that none of you pays back evil with evil; instead, always try to do good to each other and to all people. (1 Thess 5:15)

Do not repay evil with evil or curses with curses, but with blessings. Bless in return — that is what you have been called to do — so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Pet 3:9)

Bless those who persecute you. Bless them, do not curse them. Do not pay anyone back with evil for evil…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone. Beloved, do not take revenge, but leave that to the wrath of God. (Rom 12:14, 17–19)

Or, as Jesus commanded, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). Our response to evil does have to be resistance — it is morally wrong to tolerate evil. However, we also must continue to show love for the evildoer.

It should be noted that loving and praying for one’s enemies in no way precludes defending oneself when one’s life is in danger. One is morally obligated to preserve life, including one’s own. Jesus never taught that it is wrong to defend oneself against life-threatening attack. However, he consistently taught his disciples to forgive and not to seek revenge against those who had insulted or wronged them. As Proverbs 20:22 counsels, “Do not say, ‘I will repay the evil deed in kind.’ Trust in the LORD. He will take care of it.” Our responsibility is not to respond in kind to offenses directed against us. That only prolongs and perpetuates the evil. We are not to “be overcome by evil,” but to “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21).

Not only does a pacifistic interpretation of Jesus’ sayings contradict many biblical passages, but pacifism was never a part of Jewish belief. According to Scripture, for example, a person who kills a housebreaker at night is not guilty of murder: “If a thief is seized while tunneling [to break into a house], and he is beaten to death, the person who killed him is not guilty of bloodshed” (Ex 22:2). The rationale is that the thief is ready to murder anyone who surprises him, thus one may preempt the thief.

The Jewish position on this issue is summed up in the rabbinic dictum, “If someone comes to murder you, anticipate him and kill him first.”10 The rabbis taught that if one is in danger of being murdered, he should defend himself, even if there is a measure of doubt about the intention of the attacker. Furthermore, if another person’s life is threatened, one is obligated to prevent that murder, if necessary by killing the attacker.11 The rabbis ruled that a person who is pursuing someone else with intent to murder may be killed.12 In light of this, it is very unlikely that Jesus, a Jew of the first century, would have espoused pacifism.

When we examine Jesus’ words from a Hebraic-Jewish perspective, we can see what has been obscured by mistranslation and lack of familiarity with Judaism. The passages construed to support pacifism actually condemn revenge rather than self-defense. It is not surprising that this interpretation is consistent with Jesus’ other teachings and the rest of biblical instruction.

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To explore this topic more, see  New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006.

1 Mt 5:21; 5:39a; 5:44; 10:28; 16:25.

2 See Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is within You, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, 1894; repr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

3 Lk 22:38, 49.

4 Lk 22:36.

5 In addition to the King James Version and its revisions, such versions as the New Jerusalem Bible, The Living Bible and The Amplified Bible render Matthew 5:21 as “kill.” However, The Living Bible and The Amplified Bible show inconsistency by translating the sixth commandment using “murder” (Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17).

6 Rendering Matthew 5:21 by “murder” or “commit murder” are the New English Bible, New International Version, New American Standard Bible, New American Bible, Good News Bible, New Berkeley Version and the New Testament translations of Goodspeed, Moffatt, Phillips, Stern (Jewish New Testament) and Weymouth.

7 I am indebted to Robert L. Lindsey for drawing my attention to the connection between Matthew 5:39a and these three passages. Psalm 37:1 and Proverbs 24:19 read al tithar bamere’im (Do not be furiously angry with evildoers). Psalm 37:8 reads al tithar ach lehare’a (Do not be furiously angry; it can only do harm).

8 See the entry harah in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 5:171–76.

9 “Wrongdoers” might be preferable to “evildoers.” As the context, which mentions insults and lawsuits, shows, Jesus probably was not speaking primarily of confrontations with criminals or enemies on the field of battle, but of confrontations with ordinary acquaintances who have committed an offense.

10 B. Sanhedrin 72a.

11 This ruling was based on Leviticus 19:16: “You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake” (New English Translation).

12 M. Sanhedrin 8:7.

(Photo credits: Francois Polito [CC BY-SA 3.0], Bullying)

Jesus’ Rabbinic Teaching Style

We have lost sight of Jesus’ Jewish teaching methods over the centuries, as the church has moved from its Jewish beginnings to being almost entirely Gentile. This was partly from a desire to stress Jesus’ deity instead of his human context, and partly from an unfortunate desire to divorce Jesus from his Jewish background.

Several years ago, a group of Christian and Jewish scholars started studying Jesus from a different angle. They saw that the more they situated Jesus’ teachings into their Judaic context, the more they could make sense of texts that have made translators scratch their heads for centuries.

They were in agreement that while Jesus was a Jewish rabbi like many others, he did do miracles and claim to be Messiah. He even made statements that asserted his close association with God and unique authority to speak on his behalf. The more that this scholarly group studied Jesus’ use of Jewish teaching methods, the stronger his claims got! They have shown us that Jesus used many rabbinic teaching methods.

The Parable

Over a thousand parables are on record from other Jewish rabbis that bear many similarities in style and content to those of Jesus. (However, see 9/19/19 correction below.)

A parable was a way to explain a theological truth in terms of concrete images. Jesus’ Hebrew culture used physical images to express abstractions. For instance, “God’s outstretched arm” meant God’s power, and “to be stiff-necked” is to be stubborn, etc. The parable was an extension of the cultural habit of explaining truth in physical pictures. A parable usually had one main point that it was meant to explain, and some elements were common motifs in many parables.

For instance, a king was often the subject of the parable, and the king was almost always symbolic of God. Parables were the main way Jews communicated their theology of God. One rabbinic parable says,

When a sheep strays from the pasture, who seeks whom? Does the sheep seek the shepherd, or the shepherd seek the sheep? Obviously, the shepherd seeks the sheep. In the same way, the Holy One, blessed be He, looks for the lost.

We can hear the similarity between this parable and Jesus’ parable about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to look for the one lost sheep. Both parables may be from a common tradition of thinking of God as a shepherd, from Ezekiel 34, which likens God to a shepherd that looks for his lost sheep. It is interesting that even other rabbis assumed that God pursues the lost himself, and doesn’t stand at a distance while they find their way home.

Kal V’homer

Another method of teaching Jesus used was called Kal v’homer, meaning “light and heavy.” It was of teaching a larger truth by comparing it to a similar, but smaller situation. Often the phrase “how much more” would be part of the saying. Jesus used this when he taught about worry:

Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12:27-28)

We also see it in parables where he doesn’t necessarily use the phrase “how much more”:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. (Luke 18: 1-8)

Here we see an unjust judge finally grants justice to a widow who keeps bothering him. Jesus concludes, if an unjust judge will help a widow who keeps coming to him, how much more will God answer the prayers of those who keep praying! Parables often have a life application for the listener, and this one’s application is pray and not give up, as Luke explains.

Fencing the Torah

One of the things rabbis did were supposed to do, besides raise up many disciples, was to “build a fence around the Torah.” That meant to teach people how to observe God’s laws in the Torah by teaching them to stop before they get to the point of breaking one. Jesus did so in the Sermon on the Mount when he said,

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matt 5:21)

In this verse Jesus is making a fence around the command “Do not murder” by giving the stricter command, “Do not even remain angry at your brother.” He does the same with adultery by saying that a person should not even look lustfully at a woman either.

One rabbi said that “Sin starts out as weak as a spider-web, but then becomes as strong as an iron chain.” This is the point of the fencing — if you don’t want to fall to sin, it is best to avoid the temptation at the earliest point.

Alluding to the Scriptures

Another method Jesus used was alluding, or hinting to, his scriptures. He would use a distinctive word or phrase from a passage in the Old Testament as a way of alluding to all of it.

This was common in his time. In Medieval times this technique was called Remez. Even though Jesus wouldn’t have used that term, he often filled his sayings with references to the scriptures that would have been obvious to his biblically knowledgeable audience. For example, Jesus was probably alluding to a scene in 2 Chronicles 28:12-15 when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. He would have expected his audience to remember the earlier story in order to interpret the later story.

Sometimes, rabbinic teachers would hint to not just one scripture but two or more that shared a common word, and tie the two together in order to preach a message. Jesus did this when he said “My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it (my house) a den of thieves.” (Matt. 21:13) He is quoting both Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7 and tying them together, because they both contained the word beiti, my house.” He is contrasting God’s greatest vision for the temple — Isaiah 56:7 describes all the nations of the world worshiping there — with the worst possible abuse of it, which was being used as a refuge for thieves and murderers, as in Jeremiah 7:11.

Physical examples in teaching

Along with stories that used images to teach, rabbis would frequently use situations to go along with their teaching. We know that Jesus washed his disciples feet. Another distinguished rabbi, Gamaliel, once got up and served his disciples at a banquet. When they asked him why he did such a humble deed he said,

Is Rabbi Gamaliel a lowly servant? He serves like a household servant, but there is one greater than him who serves. Consider Abraham who served his visitors. But there is one even greater than Abraham who serves. Consider the Holy One, blessed be he, who provides food for all his creation!

Abraham was the most revered of all of their ancestors, and Gamaliel reminds them of when God and two angels came to his tent in Genesis 18, that he prepared a meal and served it to them. Then he hints that God himself serves when he gives us our food.

God himself is a model of serving others rather than wanting to be served. We can hear a little bit of a “Kal v’homer” saying, if one as great as God serves his lowly creation, certainly we can serve each other.

Jesus also uses visual lessons many times: for instance, when he called a child and had him stand there as he taught.

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” (Matt 18:2-5)

He uses the child as a concrete example to show the humility his followers must have, and the importance of not leading the innocent astray. Jesus may have used another example in this teaching as well: Capernaum was the center of production of millstones, and was right on the Sea of Galilee, and was where Jesus did much of his teaching. Jesus continues:

But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matt 18:6)

When Jesus said this, he may have had his hand on an 800-pound basalt millstone as he gestured to his neck, and then to the Sea of Galilee!

Conclusion  

Jesus used a method of teaching that is quite foreign to our culture, so it is easy to assume that his style was foreign to his first listeners too. We see instead that God was preparing a culture for his own coming, giving them a love for the scriptures and powerful techniques to teach the truth about him. Jesus used these methods to proclaim truth in an an uncommonly brilliant way. Certainly he was a master teacher.

 

Correction 9/19/19 – When this article was originally written in 2002, it stated that “Jesus didn’t invent this form of teaching, but was a master at using it for his purposes.” In fact, Jesus’ parables are some of the earliest recorded, and very sophisticated for their day. See The Parables of the Sages (Jerusalem, Carta, 2015) by Notley and Safrai. The assertion that Jesus simply reused stock parables and revised them for his purposes doesn’t seem convincing to me now. Rather, it looks more like Jesus was at the very forefront of this classically Jewish teaching genre.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 3, “Stringing Pearls” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 36-50.

Photos: James Tissot [Public domain], Serafima Lazarenko on Unsplash, duong chung on Unsplash

The King Who Forgave Debt

In Matthew 6:12, Jesus tells his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We know Jesus is really talking about sins, so why does he use the word “debt” instead?

In Hebrew there is an overlap between the concept of sin and debt. The Hebrew word hayav, which means “debtor,” is also used to describe a person who is guilty of sin. It doesn’t seem entirely analogous to us, because borrowing things isn’t sinful. But both require restoration to another — either of the money borrowed or reparations to the victim of the sin.

When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he was most likely using the word hayav to describe a sinner/debtor when he said “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Jesus frequently uses the image of debt as a way to describe being guilty of sin, like after he was anointed by a sinful woman in Luke 7:

And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that Jesus was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.” And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. “When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” (Luke 7:37-43)

In Jesus’ parable, he likens the person who is a sinner to one who is a debtor. He also does this in the parable of the unmerciful servant, when the servant has a debt to the king he can never repay (Matt 18:23-35). The king commanded he be sold, as well as his wife and children, to repay the debt he owed. When the debtor pleaded with the king, the king forgave him the debt, until he had another man imprisoned for not repaying a smaller debt to him. When the king heard about it, he had him imprisoned until he repaid all that he owed, an amount so great he could never hope to repay it in his lifetime.

Forgiving Debts at the Jubilee

This concept of forgiveness of sin as analogous to debt also is key to understanding Luke 4, when Jesus stands up and reads the following passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because He has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

This passage is talking about proclaiming a year of Jubilee, a “year of the Lord’s favor.” During the year of Jubilee, all debts would be forgiven, and the land a family in Israel had to sell in a time of famine could be reclaimed by them.

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. The poor who had been sold into slavery or imprisoned in debtor’s prisons would be released from bondage to return to their families and have a new beginning in life.

All of the lines of the Isaiah passage describe the release the poor and those imprisoned by debt from their bondage. Even the line “the recovery of sight for the blind” is probably referring to the release from the utter darkness of the debtor’s prisons.

It appears doubtful that Israel ever observed a year of Jubilee, which was supposed to happen every 49 years. But there is evidence from other Middle Eastern countries that Jubilee years 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.

Intriguingly, the prophets and rabbis associated the 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.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he uses images from the year of Jubilee. He takes the image of the poor person set free from debt, and uses debt as a metaphor of sin. 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.

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 they need to be forgiven. Those who have been forgiven the most, like the sinful woman, love the most, in return.

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 the debt 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 that they cannot pay themselves, and a chance to start over with a new life.

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reading the bibleTo explore this topic more, see chapter 3, “What Does ‘Christ’ Mean, Anyway?” in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Baker Publishing, 2018, p 42-59.

Photos: Ruth Enyedi on UnsplashTom Blackout on Unsplash

How to Be a Disciple

Since Jesus tells us to make disciples out of all nations (and be disciples ourselves), we will be enriched to understand what exactly was expected of a disciple.

The Elijah/Elisha relationship served as a model during Jesus’ time of what was expected of the rabbi/disciple relationship. God told Elijah to chose Elisha to succeed him as prophet, and when Elisha was called, Elisha left everything to live with and serve Elijah. Let’s look at Elijah and Elisha’s relationship:

So he (Elijah) departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, while he was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth. And Elijah passed over to Elisha and threw his mantle on him. He left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” So he returned from following him, and took the pair of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the implements of the oxen, and gave it to the people and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah and became his attendant. (1 Kings 19:19 – 21)

When Elisha asks to say good-bye to his family, Elijah’s responds angrily,  because Elisha was delaying his answer to the calling that God had given him. Elisha responded by burning his plow to show his total commitment to following Elijah, even over supporting his own family. Compare this with a scene from when Jesus was speaking to a would-be disciple:

Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9: 61-62)

There are interesting parallels here. A potential disciple asks to delay his commitment to following Jesus for the sake of family, and Jesus informs him that he needed to abandon everything to be a part of the kingdom of God. By alluding to the plow, he is recalling the scene when Elisha makes the same request of Elijah.

Utter Devotion

A disciple was supposed to be utterly devoted to his rabbi, to love him like his own father. The relationship wasn’t about academic learning, like a student taking notes from a teacher. A disciple was supposed to serve his rabbi and emulate him in his way of life, like an apprentice serving a master. We see this in Elisha when it says he became Elijah’s attendant, his mesharet (1 Kings 19:21), who humbly served his needs.

We also learn about how devoted and loyal Elisha was to Elijah. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah ordered Elisha to stay behind when he knew God was about to take him. Nothing Elijah said could make Elisha turn away. Elisha even called Elijah “father” when he saw him go up in a heavenly chariot.

If we see this as a model for disciples of Jesus, it casts light on scenes in the gospels. Peter’s declaration, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” would have been a reasonable thing for a disciple to say to his beloved master, the rabbi. In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. When Peter denies Jesus he would have felt terrible, because a disciple would never betray or abandon his master.

We also see this dynamic when Jesus teaches them about service by washing their feet. As his disciples, it was their job to serve him, not the other way around. He was teaching them a great lesson in humility, that the one most deserving of being served is serving himself, while they were busy arguing who is the greatest.

Another thing we learn from Elijah and Elisha was that Elisha’s goal was to be like Elijah, and he asked for the same prophetic spirit Elijah had to be poured out on him (2 Kings 2:9). A disciple didn’t want to just know what his master knows, he wanted to have the same abilities and passion to serve God, too. Elisha served Elijah to see how Elijah lived, and to learn to have the same wisdom in each situation. Ultimately, Elisha became Elijah’s spiritual successor.

This is another parallel between Elijah/Elisha and Jesus/disciples stories. After Elijah is taken up into heaven, his mantle falls on Elisha, and Elisha receives the ability through the Spirit to do miracles as Elijah did. In the New Testament, a few weeks after the disciples see Jesus ascend to heaven, they receive the Spirit and become able to do miracles themselves as well. We as Jesus’ disciples receive spiritual gifts that allow us to continue serving as the first church did.

Through the lens of the relationship between Elijah and Elisha, we see many applications for our own lives as Jesus’ disciples. We are supposed to be utterly devoted to serving and following Jesus, to love him more than our own families and our livelihood. Our goal cannot just be to learn all about him, or treat him as an academic teacher, but to become like him ourselves.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 4, “Following the Rabbi” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 51-65.

Photos: Dru Kelly on UnsplashPeter Mackriell [CC BY 2.0]

Hearing Jesus’ “Hidden” Messages

Jesus often uses phrases or even single words to allude to teachings in the Old Testament. He could do this because he lived in a biblically knowledgeable Jewish culture. People were familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, because they lived in an oral culture in which people learned the text largely by heart.

Jesus’ culture also had the habit of public discussion about the Bible. Traveling rabbis would teach in each village, and the town’s conversation would revolve around Scripture and the latest teaching. As odd as it sounds to us, many cultures throughout world history have put religion in the center of public culture, so that people are widely literate about religious matters. It has only been in the twentieth century that many societies have become publicly secular, and people ignorant about faith issues.

So Jesus, like others, had a sophisticated teaching style that expected his audience to be familiar enough with the scriptures that they knew the references he was making. By knowing the reference, people would know the entire context and hear more complex ideas behind his words. He wasn’t hiding secret messages — actually, he expected people to catch his allusions. In medieval times, the Jews referred to this technique of hinting as “Remez,” but the practice predated Jesus.

We actually do the same thing today. When a headline says “War in Afghanistan May Be Another Vietnam,” it is assuming that everyone knows the history of the Vietnam War. Without saying anything but the word “Vietnam,” people immediately know the reference and have an emotional reaction to that difficult time in US history.

Or, when we refer to a government scandal as “Travel-gate” or “File-gate” we are subtly alluding to the Watergate scandal. Just by adding that half word, we hint that the issue is a major White House scandal that will cast a shadow over the presidency. Even in the last sentence, you need to know which white house I am talking about! These allusions are a way of quickly referring to common cultural knowledge.

We can find many, many of these in the gospels. Here’s one passage from Mark where Jesus uses this technique:

He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations‘? But you have made it a robber’s den.” (Mark 11:15 -17)

Jesus is using two quotes from the Old Testament prophets about the Temple. One is “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” which comes out of a text from Isaiah 56:

Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD,
To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Sabbath
And holds fast My covenant;
Even those I will bring to My holy mountain
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar;
For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations. (Is. 56:6-7) 

The other comes from Jeremiah 7:

Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations? “Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the LORD. “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. (Jer. 7:9-12) 

Both of the passages share a common subject — God’s “house,” the Temple — in fact, in some ancient texts, both passage use the exact phrase “my house.”

Rabbis would look for an exact word match in order to link two texts together. This technique was called gezerah sheva. Another example is with the two texts “You shall love the Lord with all of your heart…”(Deut. 6:5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). When they are quoted together it is because the word “Ve’ahavta” (You shall love) is in common between them. Rabbis would assume that one passage would shed light on the other, or would combine the two to teach a new thing.

So what is Jesus saying about the Temple in the passage in Mark? If we just read the surface meaning, Jesus says that the Temple is supposed to be a place where people pray, not a place where people do business, and maybe unscrupulously too. The Isaiah passage, however, describes God’s greatest goal for the temple: that it would be a place of worship not just for Jews but for all the nations of the world.

The Jeremiah passage describes the worst possible abuse, where people are being openly wicked, and then fleeing to the temple because they figure God would protect it from destruction. It says that he let the temple be destroyed at Shiloh, and then threatens God would do it again if they didn’t repent.

Some think Jesus was particularly angry that the sellers were crowding the Gentiles out of the court of the Gentiles, the area of the Temple where foreigners could worship the true God.

However, the message may be even stronger than that. It is known from Josephus and other ancient historians that the Jewish temple authorities were deeply corrupt in Jesus’ time. They profited from the sale of sacrificial animals, extorted pay from the other priests, and had people who opposed them killed. Several of Jesus’ sayings were about the destruction of the Temple because of its corruption, and in Mark 14 we read his prediction that the Temple would be destroyed.

Jesus is very likely using Jeremiah 7 to hint that the selling in the Temple is only one symptom of great corruption that would ultimately lead to God’s judgement. “Den of robbers” doesn’t just refer to the sellers, it refers to the wicked temple authorities.

Since we know that we put cultural “hints” in our own conversation, we should expect that Jesus would in his words too. Certainly by learning more about his first century culture we can understand Jesus better.

We should take joy to see that the source of Jesus’ “hints” is something that we already have at our fingertips — the Old Testament. This should challenge all of us to learn the Scriptures he read, if we want to understand Jesus and follow him.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 3, “Stringing Pearls” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 36-50.

A major reference for this article is “Remember Shiloh,” by Joseph Frankovic.

Photos: James Tissot [Public domain], Berthold Werner [Public domain]

What is the Kingdom of Heaven?

Jesus spends more of his ministry talking about the kingdom of heaven than anything else. If it was central to Jesus’ message, it certainly should be important to us too! To many, these sayings are confusing and difficult to grasp. Having a knowledge about Jesus’ first century Hebrew culture will greatly clarify his teaching.

Kingdom of Heaven & Kingdom of God

First of all, we read two different phrases in the gospels — “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.” In Matthew, “kingdom of heaven” is used, while in Mark and Luke, “kingdom of God” is used. This is because in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, and even now, people show respect for God by not pronouncing his name. Often another word is substituted, like “heaven,” “the name,” or “the mighty one.”

For example, the prodigal son says to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.” The son is using the word “heaven” as a reference to God. So, Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct quote “kingdom of heaven” while Mark and Luke are explaining that “heaven” is a reference to God.

The actual words that came out of Jesus’ mouth were probably Malchut shemayim (mahl-KUT shuh-MAH-eem) which was a phrase used in rabbinic teaching in his day. The word malchut is related to the word melekh which means “king.” Malchut is associated with the actions of a king: his reign and authority, and also anyone who is under his authority. Shemayim is Hebrew for “heavens.” A simple way of translating it would be “God’s reign,” or “how God reigns” or “those God reigns over.”

But what does it really mean?

The primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven was God’s reign over the lives of people who enthrone him as king. You might think that God by default is king over everything he created. The biblical assumption, however, is that after the fall and the tower of Babel, the world began to serve other gods. At that point, God stopped being their king. Most of the world did not know God, but the Scriptures promised that one day, “The LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zech 14:9).

The question of Jesus’ time was when and how God would establish this kingdom over the world. It was thought that when the Messiah came, the Kingdom of God would arrive all at once with great glory. But Jesus disagrees:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20)

Jesus meant that a person is brought into the kingdom of God when the person repents and decides to accept God as his King, and it is something that happens in a person’s heart, not a political movement or visible display of God’s power. He agreed with other rabbis who said that when a person committed himself daily to love God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength, (by saying the Shema) he had “received upon himself the kingdom of heaven.” In essence, the person had put God on the throne over his life and entered under God’s king-ship.

One of the reasons Jesus preaches about the Kingdom of God is to proclaim the fact that he is the Anointed King (Messiah) and this is his kingdom. The “good news of the kingdom” is that when Jesus, the Son of God arrived on earth, the kingdom had arrived with him. Jesus tells his disciples to go out and heal the sick, and say that the “kingdom of heaven is near,” meaning that it is now arriving on earth, not that it isn’t quite here yet.

The take-home message is that Jesus, the king, has arrived, and he is establishing his kingdom as people repent and follow him. Jesus consistently describes the kingdom in terms of gradual expansion — like a mustard seed or a little bit of yeast that grows and grows. He is describing the community of believers that starts small, and then grows as people from all nations join. This will culminate when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is the King!

Note that the primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven is God’s reign over people in this world. Often we interpret it by equating it with heaven itself. This leads us to think that Jesus was always talking about heaven, when he was actually talking about God’s work in people’s lives. It suggests that God cares little about the lives we live now, and that he only cares about getting us into heaven.

Another distortion is to always interpret the kingdom in terms of Christ’s second coming. Certainly when Jesus returns his kingdom will be at its most glorious, and sometimes the gospels do use kingdom to talk about Jesus’ second coming or about his future heavenly kingdom. But much of what Jesus says about his kingdom is about its present reality.

How does this effect how we read Jesus’ sayings?

It is interesting how reading Jesus’ sayings in terms of what God is doing on earth, rather than in terms of heaven, can give new insight on his words. Let’s look at some examples:

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Matt 19:14) 

Childlike trust is a model for a believer’s commitment to God. People who are humble, who know they can’t live without God’s care and direction, who approach God as children do their father, are the ones that God really can teach and have a relationship with. Proud people who feel they have everything under control have a very hard time being under God’s king-ship.

 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 19:12) 

This used to puzzle me — I wondered if Jesus was saying that some have renounced marriage in the hope that they will go to heaven because of it. Rather, he means, some have decided not to marry because of God’s reign over their lives – they believe that it is the God’s will, and they are submitting to his authority.

But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:33) 

If you devote yourself to letting God direct your life and doing God’s will, he will take care of your physical needs.

Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt 6:10)

When we say this in the Lord’s prayer, we often assume that “your kingdom come” means “we are waiting for you to return.” We interpret it as a plea for Christ to come back again quickly. Really, the two phrases “your kingdom come” and “your will be done on earth” are synonymous.

They are saying “May all the peoples of the earth enthrone you as king! May everyone on earth know you and do your will!” Certainly we are joyously awaiting Christ’s return. But this is really a request for God to use us to spread the gospel and establish God’s kingdom on earth!

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

Several references are available for those who want to learn more about the kingdom of heaven in its Jewish context. “The Kingdom of Heaven: God’s Power Among Believers,” by Robert Lindsey, or the teaching series “Our Hebrew Lord,” by Dwight A. Pryor are good places to start.

Photos: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash, Royal Castle [Public domain]

Jesus’ Habit of Hinting

In all that I’ve learned about Jesus through understanding his first century Jewish culture, one of the things that has enriched my study most is learning about Jesus’ habit of hinting to his scriptures. His words are peppered with quotes and allusions to the Old Testament.

Sometimes his references are obvious, and sometimes only a word or two. But because most of his audiences would have known scripture by memory, when he does allude to it, we can be pretty sure they would have caught it, and that the reference may have been important to his point.

Fifty years ago, many scholars assumed that the audiences in the Galilee to whom Jesus preached was religiously ignorant peasants, perhaps Gentile rather than Jewish. Newer research has revealed that first-century Galilean Jewish villages were very observant. Their residents ate strictly kosher food and often traveled to Jerusalem to observe the feasts. Several well-respected rabbis, whose discussions were on a very high level, came from the Galilee. These teachers traveled from village to village, and many townsfolk would come out to listen to them. As a result, people in that highly religious area were generally quite knowledgeable about scripture.

Jesus participated in these scholarly discussions brilliantly and often pulled together Scripture texts in beautiful ways to make a point. Often we miss this if we don’t have a strong knowledge of the Old Testament. He sometimes quoted just part of a verse and the rest of the passage he was hinting at would have an even stronger message. This was common practice in his day, and is still practiced by Jewish teachers up to the present.

Messianic Hints

Most intriguingly, some of the most powerful statements that Jesus made about his mission as Messiah came through the hints that he made to his Scriptures. For example, we read about a conversation between John the Baptist’s disciples and Jesus in Matt 11:

When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matt. 11: 2-6)

On the surface this text is fairly understandable, but underneath there is more going on. In John’s ministry he tells people to repent, because after him would come the one who would bring judgement. He emphasized the fulfillment of prophetic passages like Malachi 3 which say:

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty…Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts. (Mal. 3:1-2, 5)

From this passage, many focused on “one who will come,” which they understood as the Messiah who would destroy the wicked and those who oppressed Israel. Sitting in prison, John may have been discouraged and wanting to see Jesus begin to fulfill his role of judge.

Jesus answers John by pointing out the things that he is doing (the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor) that fulfill other passages about the Messiah who is coming:

 Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. (Isaiah 35: 4-6) 

And in the very messianic passage about the anointed Messiah,

 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… (Isaiah 61:1) 

By using these passages, he is explaining to John that he is doing exactly what was predicted in the scriptures about the “one who is to come,” and that his ministry is one of healing and forgiveness for those who will listen now, but that judgement would come later. Jesus could be quite sure John knew the reference, and his point would not have been lost on him.

I am the Good Shepherd

Another example of Jesus hinting from his scriptures is in John 10:11 when he says that he is the good shepherd: 

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11) 

We think of the good shepherd as a soft, warm image, and may think of Psalm 23. But Jesus was most likely also thinking of the description of the “good shepherd” in Ezekiel 34 which says:

‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-16 ) 

We can hear in this passage Jesus’ parable about the shepherd looking for his lost sheep, and seeking and saving the lost. We can also hear hints of his sayings about judging the flock and separating the sheep from the goats. Earlier in the passage there is also a very strong judgement against the “bad shepherds,” and it is reminiscent of Jesus’ strong condemnation of the corrupt religious leaders of his time:

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. Therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2, 4, 9-10)

After Jesus gets done speaking, once more an uproar starts over what he claims. The people he was speaking to would have recognized his hints to the “good shepherd” of Ezekiel 34, and would have known its rich background and its strong implications. His description of himself as shepherd is much more powerful if you understand the scriptures behind it! They would have known that he was claiming to be the “one who is to come,” the “good shepherd,” the Messiah.

When I first discovered Jesus’ habit of “hinting,” I was surprised by his expectations of his audience, that they knew their Scriptures, our Old Testament. I was convicted too, because I didn’t grow up learning much about it. And relieved, because he was not quoting from some esoteric text lost to us today. The scripture that Jesus refers to are already in our hands, we just need to go study them. Many study Bibles today that have references in the margins for texts and quotations. I hope that as as you read through the Bible, you will find many new insights as you put Jesus’ words back in the context of the scriptures he was quoting.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 3, “Stringing Pearls” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 36-50.

A good place to find more articles on Jesus’ habit of “hinting” are the articles found on the Jerusalem Perspective website. “Remember Shiloh” by Joseph Frankovic is a good example of Jesus’ scripture quoting technique.

Photos: James Tissot [Public domain], Joe Pregadio on Unsplash

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

New Light on Jesus’ Last Week

by Lois Tverberg

As we read the story of Passion week, we often bump into scenes that don’t quite make sense to us. Why did Jesus choose his last week to overturn the tables in the temple courts? Did the same crowd love Jesus on Palm Sunday when he rode into Jerusalem, then call for his execution one week later? At Jesus’ trial, why was Jesus accused of saying that he would destroy and rebuild the temple?

A few pieces of historical data can shed a lot of light on this story. Understanding who was accusing Jesus, and what their expectations were for the Messiah can help answer our questions and link together events that seem unrelated. We will also find that Jesus fulfilled his role as Messiah in ways that we may never have considered before.

Important Data to Consider

A detail that is little known, but critical for understanding Jesus’ last week, was the corruption of the temple priesthood that existed in Jesus’ time. In Israel the temple was the heart and soul of the faith of the people of Israel, understood to be where God’s very presence dwelled.

In the hundred years preceding Jesus’ ministry, however, the priestly leadership had become extremely corrupt. Throughout the history of Israel, high priests were chosen by lot from among the Levites. Herod felt threatened by the power of the priesthood, so he ignored biblical law and appointed the high priest himself. The position was subsequently bought with bribes from wealthy Sadducean families, who agreed to keep peace with Rome in exchange for wealth from the temple tithes and the sale of sacrificial animals.

The priestly family that had been in power for many years in Jesus’ time was the house of Annas (or, Ananias), who himself served for 9 years and then appointed several sons and one son-in-law, Caiaphas. This family was extremely wealthy and corrupt, functioning much like a “mafia.”1 The “godfather” was Annas, who controlled the position even when his sons were given the title of High Priest.

The family of Annas owned the flocks from which the sacrificial animals had to come. They also controlled the money-changing tables at the Temple, which were called “booths of Annas.” They charged greatly inflated prices on sacrificial animals, extorted money, and stole funds intended to support other priests who had no other income.2

The Jews of Jesus’ time hated this corruption, and one group, the Essenes, entirely divorced themselves from worship at the temple, considering it to be defiled. John the Baptist also spoke against the priesthood, saying that the Messiah would come to clear “his threshing floor” — an allusion to the temple, which David first established on a threshing floor3 (Matt 3:12, 2 Sam 24:13).

Jesus’ Conflict with the Priests

When Jesus, the brilliant yet humble rabbi rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he employed a king’s entrance like what was foretold in the scriptures (1 Ki. 1:38-40, Zech. 9:9). He was proclaiming himself as the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

The first thing Jesus did after his triumphal entry was to enter the temple courts and drive out the sellers. Jesus’ denunciation of the sellers was much more than just wanting the worship area to be free from commerce. He was aiming at the high priest’s family itself, as he assaulted the “booths of Annas” where they were getting rich from temple worship by forcing faithful Jews to buy their overpriced sacrifices.

If Jesus was speaking rabbinically, his words to the sellers carried much more power than their literal meaning. He said, “My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves” (Luke 19:46), which is an allusion to Jeremiah 7:11, where God was denouncing the wicked religious leaders of Jeremiah’s era. God had said that the temple had become a “den of thieves,” and if they didn’t repent he would destroy it.4

Rabbis frequently hinted to part of a scripture to make a strong statement that referred to the rest of the passage. In fact, during Jesus’ last week, he alluded to many passages about the destruction of the temple, as well as openly prophesying about it. He seemed to be linking the coming destruction of the temple in 70 AD with the corruption of the priesthood of his day.5

Vineyard grabes vineAt one point during Jesus’ last week, he told a very pointed prophetic story against the priests, the “Parable of the Vineyard” in Luke 20:9-16. In that story, wicked tenants refused to give their landowner his money, and killed his servants and finally his son. The landowner responds by having them put to death.

This story was specifically aimed at the priestly leaders, whose corruption was famous.6 They were robbing God, the landowner, and killing those God sent to enforce his law, including his Son, Jesus. Once again, it pointed toward the priests being destroyed because of their sin. The religious leaders realized that they were being rebuked and wanted to arrest him immediately. Sadly, this parable has been thought by many to be aimed at the Jews in general, rather than the temple leadership of Jesus’ time.

The Passover Plot

When Jesus entered Jerusalem and made his rightful claim to be the Messianic King, he set into motion the events that he knew would lead to his death. He was greatly popular with the people, and because of that, the religious leaders were afraid all the people would follow him (John 11:48). They were obligated to squash all rebellion and keep the peace, so that the Romans would allow them to keep their positions of power.

Moreover, by challenging the temple “racket,” Jesus was bringing the wrath of the powerful priestly syndicate down on his head. The religious leaders couldn’t touch him when he was surrounded by large crowds of followers, but they wanted to end his life. They needed someone who knew how to find him at night when he was in his secluded camp outside of the city, away from the crowds.

Choosing the night of Passover was a perfect scheme, because every religious Jew would be in his home celebrating the Passover meal that started at sundown. The celebration usually went until almost midnight, and most people would immediately go to bed after having a large meal with several glasses of wine.

The streets would be deserted of the throngs that had come for the feast, and it would be easy for Judas to lead the soldiers to where they could seize Jesus. The arrest and trial of Jesus occurred well after midnight on Passover night, because the whole city was asleep, except Jesus’ enemies who needed to convict him before the crowds heard about it.

Who rejected Jesus, and who didn’t?

An important conclusion from this is that the people who called for Jesus’ crucifixion were not the same crowd as the one that hailed him as Messiah the week before. The council that met at such a late hour on a major holiday for a hasty conviction was likely not the entire Sanhedrin, but a quickly assembled group of sympathizers.

The mob that gathered early Passover morning to shout “crucify” consisted of the Sadducean priests, the elders and their supporters. They were the ones who demanded Jesus to be crucified and Barabbas released, because Jesus had offended them by denouncing their corruption.

Later, a large number of people came out to follow him to the cross and mourn for his death, but those who taunted him were the priests and Roman soldiers. Jesus was as popular with the masses at his death as he was one week earlier!

Historically, the stories of Jesus’ Passion have been read with the understanding that the Jews as a whole were acting together to destroy Jesus. This may be because in John’s account, he frequently uses the term “the Jews,” which we assume refers to the whole nation. More likely, as a Jew himself, he was speaking of the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus, or perhaps the “Judeans” — the Jews who lived in and around Jerusalem who rejected the Galilean rabbi.7

John also reported that Jesus had great popularity — so much so that the priests feared that the whole nation would believe in him (John 11:48), and that many even among the leaders believed in him (John 12:42)! By knowing more about the issues and populations of first century Judaism, we can see that those responsible for his death were a few of those in power who saw his kingship as a threat to their own corrupt empires.

We can see that Jesus’ movement was far from rejected by the Jews. Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, on Pentecost, three thousand people became believers, and according to Acts 21:20, soon tens of thousands of Jews would believe in him. One Jewish scholar believes that as many as 50,000 people, including many Pharisees and priests, became believers in Jerusalem alone.8

This was a substantial proportion of the city’s population of that time, suggesting that a very large movement in Judaism was the foundation of the early church. We should therefore read the words in the New Testament about the “Jewish rejection of Jesus” as wondering why every single Jew did not believe in him, rather than that the Jewish people as a whole rejected him. Within a hundred years, the church had become largely Gentile, but the early church was almost entirely Jewish for many years.

In the book of Acts, we read that Annas and the high priests also continued their persecution of Jesus’ followers for several years. They first commissioned Paul to kill members of the church (Acts 9:14, 26:10-12), then later put him on trial for being a believer himself (Acts 25:2).

They also were responsible for the death of Stephen (Acts 6:12 ) and later, James, the brother of Jesus.9 The house of Annas and the rest of the Sadducean aristocracy that controlled the temple finally came to an end when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, just as Jesus predicted.

Prophecies Fulfilled

Of course, God ultimately was fully in control, allowing evil men to put to death his righteous Son. Even the details that we may not have known are actually part of what was prophesied about the coming of the Messiah, and show how God worked out his plan. For example, one of the roles of the Messiah was to enter the temple and purify the priesthood. Malachi says,

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. (Mal. 3:1-3)

 This may explain why, as soon as Jesus formally announced his Messiah-ship by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, he entered the temple and prophetically cleansed it.

Another place we see fulfilled prophecy is in the words of Jeremiah 23, which were also about the corrupt leadership of Israel that caused God to destroy the temple in Jeremiah’s time. Here they are called evil “shepherds”:

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,” declares the LORD. “Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the LORD. “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. (Jer. 23:1-6)

Here the coming of the Messiah is linked to the destruction of corrupt leaders. This is also true in Ezekiel 34:1-23, where God himself regathers his sheep, punishes the “shepherds” that are abusing and robbing the people, and sends the Messiah to reign over them. Now Jesus’ words in John 10 take on new depth, as we see who the “thieves and robbers” really were:

So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep… I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:7–11, 16)

Here, the “good shepherd” is the one who opposes the bad shepherds and gathers his people together, the faithful Jews who recognized him as their true King. It also included the Gentiles who are “not of this sheep pen.” Jesus was alluding to the passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel to explain his mission.

Jesus also prophesied that the temple would be destroyed and another built without hands (John 2:19, possibly quoted in Mk: 14:58). In one sense, he was speaking about his body, but it is possible that he was also speaking about the church. When the Spirit was poured out on the believers on the day of Pentecost, God’s Spirit that filled the temple had found its new “house.”

The early church understood this to be the case, speaking often of the believers as being God’s temple (See Eph. 2:19–22, 1 Pet. 2:4-5). This too was a fulfillment of prophecy, as Jesus was the true “Son of David,” who, like Solomon, would be commissioned to build the temple.10 In Zech. 6:12-13, it also speaks of the Messiah as the one who would build the temple, sit on the throne, and be its new High Priest. Once again Jesus fulfilled prophecy in a way that we may not have realized.

Conclusion 

It is amazing how a few more historical details about first century Judaism can shed new light on the story of Jesus’ Passion and the founding of the early church. Rather than undermining the power of the story, seeing its context shows even greater ways that God used Jesus’ death and resurrection to accomplish his plan.

We see that the Jewish people as a whole were not responsible for his execution: although of course we all are to blame for Jesus’ death for our sins. From the beginning of history, God had planned to use the corruption of Jesus’ time to establish Jesus as King and High Priest of a kingdom that would have no end.

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1 Flavius Josephus The Wars of the Jews IV, 3.7. 

2 Brian Kvasnicka, Vying with Roman-allied Priests: Tribute and Tithe-evasion in First-century Roman Judea, presentation at the 2004 Society for Biblical Literature annual meeting.Also, Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.2 (205-207): “but as for the high priest Ananias, … he was a great hoarder up of money; he also had servants who were very wicked, who joined themselves to the boldest sort of the people, and went to the thrashing floors, and took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence, and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests acted in the like manner, as did those his servants without anyone being able to prohibit them; so that [some of the] priests, that of old were wont to be supported with those tithes, died for want of food.”

3 See Randall Buth and Brian Kvasnica, “Temple Tithes and Tax Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in JesusLast Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels -Volume One (ed. R. Steven Notley et al.; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 65-73.

4 See the En-Gedi article “Hearing Jesus’ Hidden Messages.”

5 Jesus’ final week is full of scripture allusions to the corruption of the temple and its coming destruction. For example, “the stones will cry out” (Lk 19:40) refers to Hab. 2:11; “you did not know the way of peace” (Lk 19:42) refers to Is. 59:8; “he whom the stone falls” (Lk 20:18) refers to Dan. 2:34 -35, 44; and “the dry tree” (Lk 23:31) refers to Ezek. 20:47. Use a very literal translation (King James or New American Standard) to compare these texts, and read the OT scripture reference in its greater context.

6 Brian Kvasnicka, The Climactic Economic and Halachic Tensions in Jesus’ Last Week: The Parable of the Vineyard Tenants and Son and the Temple Demonstration, presentation at the 2004 Society for Biblical Literature annual meeting.

7 An excellent further reference is Misconceptions about Jesus and the Passover, a lecture series by Dwight Pryor, available at www.jcstudies.com.

8 Shmuel Safrai, as quoted by Dwight Pryor in Misconceptions about Jesus and the Passover.

9 Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities” 20.9.1.

10 See the En-Gedi article “Builder of the House.

Photos: Berthold Werner [Public domain], David Köhler on UnsplashUnknown publisher of Bible Card [Public domain]

Aleinu: The Prayer for God’s Kingdom

by Lois Tverberg

The main theme of Jesus’ ministry was to preach about the coming of the Kingdom of God, but it is a source of confusion and misunderstanding to many Christians. Is it in heaven after we die? Isn’t God king already?

One thing widely misunderstood is how Jesus spoke about the coming of God’s kingdom in order to proclaim himself as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed king. The primary task of the Messiah, after all, was to establish God’s reign on earth. Dozens of articles are available on this page about Jesus’ Jewish Messianic claims.1

What would the coming of this kingdom look like? An ancient Jewish prayer named Aleinu (Ah-LAY-nu) can shed light on this question. Scholarly sources believe that this beautiful prayer predates Jesus, so that he himself would have prayed it. The name, Aleinu, means, literally, “it is upon us,” which means “we must” or “it is our duty to.”

Even today this prayer is recited at the conclusion of every synagogue service. It is especially prominent on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, when it is traditional to focus on God’s kingship over the world.

Through the prayer the worshiper exalts God as his or her king, and prays that all the world will repent and do the same. (Note that in the third section, the word for “rule,” malchut, is the same word for kingdom.)

 

Aleinu

It is our duty to praise the Lord of all.
To acclaim the greatness of the God of creation,
Who has not made us as the nations of the world,
Nor set us up as other peoples of the earth,
Not making our portions as theirs,
Nor our destiny as that of their multitudes.2

3For we kneel and bow low before the supreme King of Kings,
The Holy One, blessed be He,
Acknowledging that He has stretched forth the heavens
And laid the foundations of the earth.
His glorious abode is in the heavens above,
The domain of His might in exalted heights.
He is our God, there is no other,
In truth our King, there is none else.
Even thus is it written in His Torah:
“This day know and lay it to your heart,
That the Lord is God in the heavens above and on the earth below.
There is none else.”

We therefore hope in Thee, Lord our God,
Soon to behold the glory of Thy might
When the world shall be established under the rule of the Almighty,
And all mankind shall invoke Thy glorious name.
May they all accept the rule of Thy dominion,
And speedily do Thou rule over them forever more.4

Here is an excerpt of the last section from another translation that is older and more literal, that talks about the “Yoke of God’s Kingdom.”

“Therefore do we wait for Thee, O Lord our God, soon to behold Thy mighty glory, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth, and idols shalt be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh invoke Thy name; when all the wicked of the earth shall be turned unto Thee. Then shall all the inhabitants of the world perceive and confess that unto Thee every knee must bend, and every tongue be sworn. Before Thee, O Lord our God, shall they kneel and fall down, and unto Thy glorious name give honor. So will they accept the yoke of Thy kingdom, and Thou shall be King over them speedily forever and aye. For Thine is the kingdom, and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah: ‘The Lord shall reign forever and aye.’ And it is also said: ‘And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.'”

 

Christians should be fascinated by how this prayer describes the Kingdom of God being established on the earth, and how it desires that all the nations repent and worship the true God of heaven. It seems to be very much related to Jesus’ words about “the coming of the kingdom of God” and Paul’s sermon in Philippians:

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

1 See also, “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!” and “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy

2 In some versions there is a line that says, “for they prostrate themselves before vanity and folly, and pray to a god who can not help.” Ironically, Christians protested since they saw it as said against them, and persecuted Jews for praying this prayer. In many prayer books it has been removed.

3 It is customary to stand for the prayer, and bow while saying this line.

4 From the Siddur, The Traditional Prayerbook for Sabbath and Festivals
Behrman House, 1960

For more information about this prayer see the following:

Alenu,” a Jewish Enclyclopedia article
This site devoted to the Aleinu

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash