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 the Messiah. He even made statements that asserted his close association with God and unique authority to speak on God’s behalf. The more that this scholarly group studied Jesus’ use of Jewish teaching methods, the stronger his claims got! [1] 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. In the past, scholars have said 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.[2]

The assertion that Jesus simply reused stock parables and revised them for his purposes doesn’t seem convincing now. Rather, it looks more like Jesus was at the very forefront of this classically Jewish teaching genre.

Where can you find parables that have a very similar form than those of Jesus? You will not find them in the literature of the first century like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo or Josephus. You find them in rabbinic literature from the 2nd and 3rd century and later, surprisingly.

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.[3]

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!


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.


[1] For more, see chapter 12, “Jesus’ Bold Messianic Claims” in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Baker Publishing, 2018. Much writing from this group can be found on the website. See also, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from his Jewish Context, by David Bivin.

[2] See The Parables of the Sages (Jerusalem, Carta, 2015) by R. Steven Notley and Ze’ev Safrai. 

Sitting[3] To explore Jesus’ use of allusion to his Scriptures, 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.


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.

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Gifts Fit for a King

Did you know that the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus at his birth have multiple precedents in the Bible that Jesus read? Consider this story from the life of Solomon:

When the queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame, she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions. Arriving with a very great caravan — with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones — she came to Solomon and talked with him about all she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for him to explain to her. … Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. There had never been such spices as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. (2 Chron. 9:1-4, 9)

Here too we find these three unusual gifts. It also might seem strange that foreign royalty would come to give gifts to a king who was already rich. But when a powerful king arose in a country, other countries wanted to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. Solomon controlled more territory than any other Israelite king, so this was a report of royalty from very far away coming to pay tribute to him.

This picture of a king so great that other kings would come to pay homage is also used to describe the coming Messiah. The messiah was the promised son of David, who would have a great kingdom without end. Not only would he be king over Israel, he will be king over the whole world! Psalm 72 looks ahead to when that will happen:

Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. …The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help.

Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. May people ever pray for him and bless him all day long. May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed. (Psalm 72:1, 7-12, 15, 17)

Interestingly, we see the same scene in this Psalm as happened to Solomon. Other kings would come to bow down to this great king, to bring tribute and present him with gifts, including gold from Sheba.

Sheba is at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen is today, about 1800 miles from Israel. Sheba was known in ancient times as possessing great wealth: gold, jewels and spices. Spices don’t seem very precious to us, but in ancient times, some spices and aromatic oils were worth more than their weight in diamonds, because of their rarity and use as perfumes, incense and medicine.

There is yet another messianic prophecy in Isaiah 60 about the restoration of Zion that describes a similar scene. It says,

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. (Is 60:1-4, 6)

Here again royalty from Sheba comes, bringing gold and frankincense as gifts to Jerusalem.

This recurring image of kings coming with gifts of fabulous wealth sheds light on the significance of the story of the wise men in Matthew 2:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” … On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh. (Matt. 2:1-6, 11) 

The wise men, probably ambassadors from the courts of other countries, wanted to see the messianic king who had been born in Israel, and to pay him homage. We can see why Herod wanted to destroy him–this king would become king over the whole world!

Only Jesus would do it a different way than Herod would. He would humble himself and die to redeem his people from their sins. As the message would go out to the world, people from all nations would repent and enter his kingdom. Gradually, his kingdom would expand, like a mustard seed, until every nation on earth would be blessed through him!


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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]

The Psychology of Idolatry

The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right. They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. They did wicked things that provoked the LORD to anger. They worshiped idols, though the LORD had said, “You shall not do this.” (2 Kings 17:7-12, edited)

To modern Christian readers, it is hard to imagine being tempted by idolatry. This is because we are strict monotheists–we simply don’t believe any other gods exist besides God. However, if we understand the psychology behind the ancient practice of idolatry, we can draw lessons for our lives today.

The Mindset of Idolatry

In the Ancient Near East, people believed each nation had its own gods, and that gods had limited powers and territories. These “gods” controlled the prosperity and fertility of the people that worshiped them. They did not make moral demands, but only expected to be venerated through sacrifices and rituals to grant their favor. A person who became prosperous through devious means was admired for his or her cleverness in gaining the favor of the gods.

The God of Israel, however, insisted on moral conduct and gave the nation many laws to obey. (Normally the king wrote the laws, not the gods.) Besides the fact that it was more difficult to be honest than dishonest, it was very challenging for the Israelites to believe in this strange kind of deity that chose to to be so unlike every other god they knew.

While other nations had gods that inhabited idols, this God insisted they not make idols to worship him. The gods of other nations were human-like, but this God was invisible and incomprehensible. Other gods needed to be fed sacrifices to gain power, but this one did not need their sacrifices for power. The other gods were subject to manipulation to gain their favor, but this God could not be manipulated.

It was hard to grasp the concept that God was utterly greater than the gods of the other nations. The Israelites were probably not sure if their God would win in the contest Elijah set up between the true God and Baal.

When the Israelites worshiped idols, they were committing several sins. Most importantly, they were violating their covenant with God, who insisted that they serve no other gods. Israel’s covenant was often likened to a marriage, and idolatry was adultery to with God. Additionally, worshiping idols required that they abandon the moral laws that God had given them. They engaged in perverse sexual practices, sacrificed infants, and sank to the depths of depravity.

They also showed the world they didn’t believe that God was greater than the gods of the nations around them. God’s intention was for Israel to be a light to teach the world about the True God, but in idol worship they caused the nations to mock God instead.

Modern Day Idolatry

Ancient Israelites wanted the same things we do: prosperity and happiness. They had a choice of obeying God and letting him bless them, or trying to gain their blessing through idolatry. Likewise, many things we want are good, but the means to achieve them show whether we are serving the Lord or serving “idols,” in a sense.

A church can want its congregation to grow, but if it chooses activities because of their popularity rather than their spiritual content, it shows that filling pews has become an idol. Or, a man may feel like the Lord called him to a certain job, but when he starts acting unethically to maintain his position, the job has become an idol to him.

Once we start using motives God wouldn’t approve of, even if we think we are serving him, we have shifted our service to something else. After all, God demands we act morally, but idols let us act any way we please.

We also act like idolaters when we aren’t convinced of God’s greatness in comparison to other awe-inspiring things. God is not threatened by scientific discoveries, intellectual achievement or medical advances. He is not thwarted when the wrong party wins the presidency. He is in control when the things we fear happen, like our business closes or we get cancer. Like the Israelites who weren’t sure whether God could defeat Baal, we often give voice to our worry that God isn’t truly sovereign over the world. 

Many things in our world command respect, and it is tempting to be overawed by them. When we give up on God’s ability to accomplish his purposes because his opposition seems too great, we are shrinking God down to the size of this world. We can hardly grasp that as powerful as the things around us seem, God is more powerful yet.

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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.


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]

The Messiah will Build God’s House

What exactly was promised in the Old Testament about the coming Messiah and how did Jesus fulfill it? While we find messianic hints from the very beginning of Genesis, the place where the promise was explicitly made was during the life of King David. David was faithful to God and earnestly desired to build a house (a temple) for him. Through the prophet Nathan, God gave him this response:

When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever. (1 Chron. 17:11-14)

This passage is foundation and core of all God’s promises the Messiah. The Messiah was to be a “son of David,” a great king who would reign over Israel and would have a kingdom without end. This was partially fulfilled by Solomon, the son of David, but ultimately fulfilled by Jesus, the Son of David.

We see many intriguing parallels between Solomon and Jesus. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem that was like Solomon’s coronation (1 Kings 1); the gifts from the wise men were like the adoration Solomon received from the queen of Sheba and other kings (1 Kings 10). Even Solomon’s peaceful reign as king and his wise teachings are rough parallels of Jesus.

The messianic promise to David makes another declaration, that the Son of David would build a house for the Lord. Building the Temple was the high point of Solomon’s reign. For Jesus as well, this will be one of the most important pictures of what his mission on earth accomplished.

What is a “House” for the Lord?

Many Hebrew words have a wide range of meanings, and it is helpful to understand that the word for house, beit, can mean a house, a temple, a family or a lineage, among other things. In fact, in the prophecy to David, God was making a wordplay using two different meanings of the the word beit.

King David had told God that he wanted to build him a “house,” meaning a temple, and God answered instead that he would build him a “house,” meaning a family lineage. In Hebrew both meanings are part of the word beit. So, this gives us a hint that the kind of “house” Jesus would build could be very different than the temples built before him.

Another thing to note is that God had first commanded his people to build a “house” back when Moses built the tabernacle so that he could be near them. God said, “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

The goal of God’s sanctuary was for him to be intimately with his people. God comes to be physically present among his people when the Spirit came to indwell the sanctuary of the tabernacle of Moses, and in the temple of Solomon.

Jesus and His Temple

Often in Jesus’s ministry he talks about the Temple. He makes the key statement that “I will destroy this temple (house) made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands” (Mark 14:58). In the gospel of John, it says that he was referring to his body, in terms of being raised to life in three days.

There is a bigger picture there as well. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection he was building a “house” for God of a different type. He was bringing together a “house” of a family of believers who would become that place where God’s Spirit dwells.

At Pentecost (Shavuot), the Spirit dwelt in the hearts of the believers. The people of the early church would have thought back to the other scenes of the Spirit entering the Temple to dwell there. They realized that instead of dwelling in a house made by human hands, the Spirit of God had moved into a new Temple, the body of believers, with Jesus as the cornerstone. This picture is found throughout the New Testament:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor. 6:19)

What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Cor 6:16)

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)

And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1Pet. 2:4-5)

One thing to note: with only one exception (1 Cor. 6:19), the Temple of God’s people does not refer to us individually but of us collectively, as one body. While we all individually have God’s Spirit living in us, God’s picture is of dwelling with us as a body of people, not just individually in our hearts. We experience God’s presence best not when we are on a mountain alone, but with others who love God and each other.

Now we can see a progression of God’s plan to have intimacy with human beings, who forfeited their relationship with him through sin. First he chose the Israelites, let them use sacrifices for atonement, and dwelt among them in their tabernacle. Then, he had Solomon build the Temple, which was to be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Is 56:7). Finally, through the atoning work of Christ and the new covenant, God comes to dwell in our hearts as his Temple, to achieve his greatest goal of living intimately with his people.


reading the bibleTo explore this topic more, see p. 69 in chapter 4, “Painting in Hebrew” in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Baker Publishing, 2018.

Lawrence OP, Sarah Noltner on Unsplash

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.


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]

In the Name of the Lord

Often in the Bible we encounter phrases like “in the name of the Lord” or “in my name,” being used in puzzling way. The phrase “in the name of” is one of those Hebraic figures of speech that Christians frequently misunderstand. What does it mean?

Remember that in Eastern, oral cultures a person’s name was connected with the person’s identity, authority and status. When God caused a major change in a person’s life, he often changed his or her name, to show a change in their identity in society. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and Jacob becomes Israel. Likewise, when the Bible speaks of God’s “name,” it often refers to God’s authority, power and identity.

The meaning of the Hebraism “in the Name of”

For the sake of. We see this meaning in Matt. 10:41: “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward.” A prophets is given a message by God that he is to relay to the world. Some listeners reject him and some accept his message. A very few will encourage and support the prophet because they realize God has sent him — because of his identity as a prophet of God. Jesus was encouraging his disciples by saying that God would provide for them, and even provide for those who support their difficult work. Of course this line doesn’t mean that somehow by saying the prophet’s name, a person will be rewarded. The word “name” refers to the prophet’s identity and authority as a man sent by God.

We also hear this in John 14:13 – 14: “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” When we end a prayer “in the name of Jesus” we are really saying, please listen to my prayer for the sake of Jesus, who died for my sins. Because of his sacrifice, we can come before the Lord with our petitions and God will listen. Or, you could say that we are praying with his authority when we pray in his name.

The reputation of. To speak of someone’s “name” can also refer to his or her reputation, as it is used today. We hear it used this way in the following passages:

But I withdrew My hand and acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. (Ezek. 20:22)

You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the Name of your God; I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:12) 

To swear falsely is to break an oath made before God, which shows lack of respect for God, and causes others to scoff at the God who has such followers. When God’s followers act sinfully, they bring shame on reputation of God.

Think of the TV evangelist sex scandals and how they harden non-Christians from believing in Christ. That is what it means to “profane the Lord’s name.” In contrast, “to hallow God’s name” is to cause God to be honored because of your actions. Jews still use the phrase “to sanctify God’s name” as meaning to give your life for your beliefs.

The authority and power of. A name can signify a person’s authority and power as well:

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. (1 Samuel 17:45)

David came against Goliath, who mocked God, in God’s authority and power, acting as his representative, and God gave him the victory.

Even today in Hebrew “in the name of” can mean “by the authority of.” As I got off the plane on my last trip to Israel, I heard them say over the speakers “B’shem El Al, shalom,” literally “In the name of El Al, peace (greetings).” meaning, “We represent El Al airlines in greeting you.”

Misunderstanding “the Name of the Lord”

Bible readers sometimes so misinterpret this phrase that they violate biblical intent. People think it means that by literally speaking the name of God, they can use it to cause God to answer prayers or confer salvation.

One Christian movement believes that if the phrase “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is not used in baptism, then that person is not actually saved. By leaving out any of the three names, it renders baptism ineffective. Some Jewish Roots ministries place a great amount of stress on pronouncing Jesus’ name a certain way. They feel that saying “Yeshua” or “Yahshua” is critical if we want to have power to answer prayers.

This misunderstanding invokes an ancient belief about names that the Bible refuted. In pagan cultures, the way humans interacted with gods was by manipulating them through magical rituals. Pronouncing secret names was used as a way to coerce the spirits to do one’s bidding. The implicit assumption is that gods were finite and can be forced into doing human bidding. By the power of uttering the correct words, people could cause their will to be done.

Unlike in the rest of the Ancient Near East, we find no instructions in the Torah for using sacred incantations or formulas in the Tabernacle. Just as no engraved image could be used to invoke God’s presence, no incantations could be used to manipulate him.

When we pray, we should always ask ourselves whether we are focusing on the Lord or on our words. If we use the name of God (or Jesus) to conjure him up like a genie, this implies that he is merely a spiritual force who responds to coercion. Instead we should realize that he is a gracious and compassionate God who listens to our sincere prayers, and whose heart is moved to respond because of his great love toward us.


Photos: Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash, Josh Applegate on Unsplash