How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)
Some kinds of news have the power to change our lives overnight — the birth of a baby, the diagnosis of cancer, the closing of a factory. The news of the end of a war or toppling of an evil government can mean new life for millions. We remember with great joy the end of World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. People who had lived in fear of torture and murder for decades said that they felt like they had been “reborn.” It was as if a nightmare was suddenly over and a new day had come.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word besorah, which we translate to “good news,” has exactly that connotation. It is news of national importance: a victory in war, or the rise of a powerful new king. The word was used in relation to the end of the exile (Isaiah 52:7) and the coming of the messianic King (Isaiah 60:1). Often it is news that means enormous life change for the hearer.
In Greek, there is an equivalent word, euaggelion, which we also translate as “good news, glad tidings, or gospel.” It also describes historic news of national importance. One place where this term is used is in the story of the angels who bring the news about the birth of Christ:
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
This announcement has a fascinating context. In Jesus’ time, there was a yearly announcement of the birthday of Caesar as “the euaggelion to the whole world.” The Roman Empire considered it great news to remind people of the ascendancy of this king and his reign over the known world. In the light of this, we see that the angels were doing the same thing, but in a much greater way — making an official proclamation to the all the nations about the birth of the true King of Kings, and the arrival of a new kingdom on earth.
When we learn that the word “evangelize” comes from euaggelizo (related to euaggelion), we can see the true power of the “good news” of the coming of Christ. Victory has been won in the war against Satan; and Christ, the true King, has come into power. This new King has come to extend an invitation to enter his kingdom and live under his reign. Like any regime change, the word “good” is far too bland to express the impact of this news that brings eternal life to its hearers. May the news of this King spread everywhere on earth!
Back when I was in school, my friends and I were huge fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Every Monday morning, all we talked about was the previous evening’s new episode. At first we just focused on the science fiction, discussing how Jean-Luke Picard dealt with whatever strange planetary life form that he had encountered that week.
After a while, though, we became engrossed in the plots that were interwoven into many episodes and would surface again in later programs. Data, the android, would discover one week that his creator had also fashioned an evil twin “brother” named Lore, and weeks later, their relationship would come up in the characters’ conversation. Months later Lore would return, now possessing the “emotion-chip” that Data had dearly desired since he was first built.
Over time we saw that key to enjoying the show was paying attention to the crew’s offhand remarks about the past, and then thinking back to how earlier episodes shed light on the current story. Like any well-written series, each program would tell a good story, but a long-time follower would be able to see how the intrigue grew as the plot thickened over time.
As I learned to read the Bible in its ancient Eastern setting, I discovered that it’s actually a lot like this. Why? Because memory and history were central to the fabric of ancient Eastern culture. The ancients were very aware of ancestral relationships and oral history handed down to them, and used it to understand later events. Especially important to them was the first place they found something, because it usually set up relationships and patterns that would come up again and again.
Being aware of this has greatly enriched my Bible study, because the Scriptures are written with this in mind. As a child, my Bible story book trained me to read the Scripture as a series of short stories, mostly unrelated, each with its own moral lesson.
Only after learning about its Eastern setting did I discover that the Old Testament especially is an epic saga with a delightfully interwoven plot. Sometime the Bible includes stories that hardly seem to be moral examples, and I used to wonder why they were there. But they need to be there to explain the deeper meaning of later events.
Let’s look at how an ancient person would read the book of Ruth. I used to simply see it as a nice story about a widow who found a good husband because she was kind to her mother-in-law. But if we lived in biblical times, we would be curious about Ruth’s ancestors, and our ears would prick up to the fact that Ruth was a Moabite.
Immediately we’d think of the scandalous past of her people, and it would cast her story in a different light. We’d recall that when the weary Israelites were journeying to the Promised Land, the Moabites lured the Israelites into sexual immorality and worshipping idols (Numbers 25:1).
From that time on, the Moabites were associated with sexual immorality, even more disgusting because it was how they worshipped their “gods.” Because of that sin, God declared that Moabites were barred from being a part of the assembly of Israel in Deuteronomy 23:3. Was their sin ever forgivable, we’d wonder?
Then we’d think back to the origins of the Moabites in Genesis 19:30-38. After Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, we read the not-so-nice story of when Lot’s daughters got their father drunk so that they could become pregnant by him, since their husbands had refused to leave the city and died. One of Lot’s daughters gave birth to a son named Moab, and he became the father of the Moabite people. So that’s why the Moabites are so immoral! This would make complete sense to us, because we’d expect that people would be defined by their ancestry.
Keeping these ideas in mind, now let’s turn to Ruth. She was a Moabite woman who had returned to Israel with her mother-in-law after her husband died. An ancient listener would immediately wonder, was she as immoral as those who came before her? She said that she would worship the God of Israel, but would God ever accept her? We even find her in the same situation as Lot’s daughters! Like them, she was a widow who desperately needed children. Naomi even told her to approach Boaz when he was sleeping outside by his harvest, after he had eaten (and drunk) his fill.
Unlike her ancestors, however, Boaz proclaimed that she was a virtuous woman (Ruth 3:10). He then married her, and her son became the grandfather of King David. Not only that, but Ruth even appears in Matthew 1:5 as part of the line of Christ! She turned from her people’s unseemly past to embrace the God of Israel. Not only did he accept her and cleanse her from her history, but he gave her a key role in his supreme act of salvation! Those of us who struggle with an embarrassing family history or an immoral past should rejoice to see how God redeemed Ruth and used her for his wonderful purposes.
Understanding how texts interrelate has given me a whole new perspective on reading the Bible. When I used to read the stories by themselves, some of them frustrated me because they didn’t show me how to live. But the difficult ones have a far deeper purpose. They illustrate how the terrible sinfulness of man runs throughout history, but then how God graciously intervened to bring Christ into the world. We need to read with the eyes of an ancient person in order to see how that message is woven into the fabric of the Bible from beginning to end.
When Jesus was asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” the conversation leads to an answer that most Christians would find unacceptable, or at least confusing. It sounds as if by obeying the commandments, or even by loving God and our neighbor, we can somehow earn our own salvation!
We read this conversation in Luke 10:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, `Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:25-28
One explanation for Jesus’ response is that because the law expert is testing Jesus out of hostility, Jesus is deliberately affirming his “wrong” answer, so that later, when he realizes his inability to keep these commands perfectly, he will see that he must lean on God’s grace and just believe.
Most likely this is not what was going on. If this is true, it means that Jesus was playing a game with the lawyer, and that his words must be read knowing that no one ever could actually do what he just said to do. While this has satisfied some Christians, having additional information from Jesus’ first century Jewish context can lead to a better reading of this text that explains why Jesus accepted the answer without hidden qualifications.
We should start with the assumption that many times when other rabbis “tested” Jesus, it was not done with hostile intentions. The rabbinic style of public discussion from Jesus’ time even up to the present has been to pose a difficult question with the expectation of debate. A story is even told of a rabbi who greatly mourns the passing of his strongest adversary, because he had lost his best way to sharpen his intellect.1
We tend to assume that every conversation between Jesus and religious thinkers was antagonistic, and hear their questions as legalistic or manipulative. But several questions, like whether divorce was permissible, or what was the “greatest commandment,” were actually important discussions already permeating the rabbinic community of Jesus’ time.2
Love the Lord Your God
The key to understanding Jesus’ affirmative response is to look at the context of how the lawyer’s response was understood in that time. The first line of his answer says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind,” and comes from Deuteronomy 6:5. We hear “love” as inward affection, and it does mean that. But in Hebrew, the verb “love” can also refer to the outward display of committedness to another. It is to “act lovingly toward” or “to honor and be loyal to.” It was even used in covenants between kings after a war, when one would promise to “love” the other, meaning to show uncompromising loyalty to the other.3
Why is this important? Because then the statement “You shall love the Lord…” then becomes a statement of life commitment to God, and faithfulness to a relationship with him. This is very close to the Christian understanding that we need to have a personal relationship with God for salvation.
Interestingly, the rabbinic term for this idea — to commit yourself to a personal relationship with God, was to “receive the kingdom of Heaven,” very close to what Jesus referred to in his preaching. Why? The word “kingdom” refers to God’s reign or authority, and “Heaven” is a respectful euphemism for God. When we receive the reign of God, what we are actually doing is enthroning him as our king, committing our lives to be under his reign.
This yields a clue as to why Jesus spent so much of his ministry proclaiming the “kingdom of Heaven,” in the sense that he had come to open the way for all people to have a relationship with God through atonement by his blood, and that relationship could be described as “entering under God’s reign.”4
Another important thing about the lawyer’s response was that he was quoting from the Shema, the “pledge of allegiance” that Jews said as a statement of commitment to their relationship with God. The first line is “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone.” According to the Jewish Publication Society, the emphasis is not actually on proclaiming that “God is one,” a creed of monotheism (as is often said), but on the demand of utter loyalty between God and his people — that he alone is their God.5
Obedience Follows Relationship
It may be surprising to some that rabbinic thought of Jesus’ time embraced the idea that salvation comes by faith rather than by works, and they even saw that expressed in the Shema. They understood that the relationship with God must always come first, and only after we have that do we obey God’s commandments.
In the Mishnah6 there is a sermon based on the how the Shema is recited. A person always begins with Deut. 6:4-9, which begins with “Hear O Israel, the Lord is Your God, the Lord alone.” Next they recite Deut. 11:13-21, which begins with the words, “So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today…” The rabbi said,
“Why do we always talk about God being our Lord before we say the part about obeying the commandments? Because we must first receive the kingdom of Heaven (meaning “enthrone God as our king,” or establish our relationship with him) and only then take on the yoke of the commandments.”7
We do not earn our relationship, we receive it as a gift from him, and the laws are not for earning God’s favor or getting into heaven, but for learning how to live to please him. One creative rabbi imagined that King David may have been thinking that when he wrote Psalm 141:1:
King David said, “Some trust in their fair and upright deeds, and some in the works of their fathers, but I trust in you. Although I have no good works, yet because I call upon you, you answer me.”8
Love your Neighbor as Yourself
The other commandment that the lawyer mentioned in Luke 10, “love your neighbor as yourself,” also has special significance. It is a quote from Leviticus 19:18, and it was singled out in ancient Jewish culture before we hear it from Jesus. It has a rare word, ve’ahavta, “and you shall love,” in common with that of words of the Shema that shows total commitment to God, “And you shall love the Lord your God…”
Even before Jesus’ time, those two verses were thought to be linked, in a poetic way, so that the way you expressed your total love and commitment to God, who you can’t see, was by showing love to your neighbor, who you can see. This is certainly a central teaching of Jesus too, and the overwhelming importance of this command is echoed in the rest of the New Testament. Peter says “above all, love one another” (1 Peter 4:8), and in the letters of John, that “this was the teaching you have heard from the very beginning – to love one another” (1 John 3:11).
It appears that this idea may have already been circulating in Jewish culture before his time, and the lawyer was repeating it to Jesus. If Jesus also had the first century understanding that loving your neighbor was the clearest expression of your commitment to God, he would have accepted the lawyer’s words as a way of describing how to live out your relationship with God in obedience and authenticity, by showing God’s love to those around you. Thus, the lawyer gave a very good answer, using first century Jewish terminology to say that we need to commit ourselves to the Lord and live our faith out wholeheartedly. And Jesus responds, “Yes, do this!”
The questioner then goes on to ask, “who is my neighbor,” which also was a legitimate question that was debated at the time, and Jesus gives brilliant insight to this too.9
The Challenge of A Different Understanding
Although this may be a challenge to our traditional Christian view, it suggests that there was some brilliant thinking going on before Jesus’ time, as God was preparing his people for the coming of his Son.
Certainly if Jesus was going to raise up a congregation of many thousand followers out of this Jewish nation (Acts 21:20), God needed to be preparing their hearts for their Messiah. Studying their thinking allows us to see Jesus’ answer as straightforward and clear. He affirms that we need to have a personal relationship with God, and show our commitment to him by loving others in the world around us.
This essay is based, in part, on a talk given by Dr. Randall Buth at Mars Hill Bible Church on October 17, 2003.
It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. Luke 6:12
Jesus was a man of prayer. He stayed up all night in prayer, arose early to pray, and taught his disciples to pray. How did people pray in Jesus’ time, and how did he probably pray? Understanding the traditions of Jewish prayer adds depth and meaning to Jesus’ teachings on the subject.
For instance, the prayer that Jesus probably prayed before he broke the bread at the Last Supper was probably something like, “Blessed is he who brings forth bread from the earth.” If the very next thing Jesus says is “This is my body, broken for you,” could he be hinting that just as God brings bread from the ground, he will bring Jesus, the Bread of Life out of the ground? It is an interesting thing to ponder. Our understanding of that passage is enriched by knowing the prayers of Jesus’ day.
Jesus also teaches many parables on the importance of prayer – about the persistent widow, and about the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We can learn much about the mind of Christ on prayer by grasping his teachings as they would have been understood in his time.
We can be especially enriched by understanding the prayer that Jesus taught us. Although we know it by heart, many struggle with some of the phrases like, “thy kingdom come” and “keep us from evil” that may seem foreign to us. Understanding his prayer in the context of the other prayers of his time will help us pray as Jesus intended for us to pray.
Of course, we need to be not just hearers of the word but doers as well. These articles will only be worthwhile if they inspire you to a new level of prayer, and a more intimate walk with your Heavenly Father.