Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” has come to be one of the most famous paintings of all time, yet many do not know its original setting. The image has been reproduced countless times the world over, and has become the subject of many paintings itself.
Because this painting is so well known, it has been highly influential in establishing a picture in our minds of what the last night before Jesus’ death must have been like. Unfortunately it is the wrong picture! Nearly every detail in the picture is culturally inaccurate.
To list just a few: the people in the picture look European, certainly not Semitic. The supper that Jesus was participating in was a Jewish Passover Seder — Pesach in Hebrew. It was always celebrated after sundown, not with the blue sky as we see. These feasts have usually been celebrated with family, so there may have been other women and men dining with them, and children of all ages.
Jesus would have not been seated in the middle of a long table, he would have reclined on a couch or pillow on the floor, leaning on his left elbow. He certainly would not have been eating fish and leavened bread loaves! Rather, he would have been eating lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread as was commanded in Exodus 12. To leave lamb off the menu for Passover is to forget an essential detail of the supper in which Jesus presents himself as the true lamb of Passover.1
At the point in the Seder when Jesus took the bread, broke it and said, “this is my body broken for you” (Luke 22:19), those present would have seen him hold up the unleavened bread, the “bread of affliction” that reminded them of God’s redemption from Egypt. It was free from leaven, representative of sin in this case, just as a pure sacrifice offered at the temple had to be free of leaven. Without that image, we miss the message in Jesus’ powerful words.
Does it matter that we have the wrong picture? It does if we want to understand Jesus — if we want to understand his culture. Our human mind always associates images with our thinking process; in one sense, we think in terms of pictures. If we use the wrong picture, we will likely miss the message, and the story will sound different than intended.
Da Vinci never intended for this painting to become the theological icon that it has become. The peculiar details that he incorporated into the painting (for example, 25 hands for 12 disciples) are the subject of many books, but it is certain that historical accuracy was not his objective.
Ironically, Da Vinci’s painting which has taken Jesus out of his context, has itself has been taken out of context. We usually see the image portrayed as if it were a painting on canvas, when actually it was a mural measuring 15’ x 29’ painted on a wall in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.
Da Vinci was commissioned in 1494 by a patron of the town, Duke Ludovico, to paint a fresco in the monk’s dining hall there. Fresco is a technique using water-based paint applied directly to plaster while it is still wet, and requires the artist to work quickly before the plaster dries. Da Vinci simply could not paint this way; he wanted time to consider, to go back weeks, months, or even years later to add things.
So he decided to lay down a surface on the wall that would allow him to work as he usually did.2 He invented a technique of applying a mixture of oil and tempera over two layers of plaster, a technique that unfortunately proved to be unsuccessful. He could not have predicted that these materials would succumb to the attacks of pollution or humidity. Even during Leonardo’s lifetime the irreversible process of deterioration set in and pieces started flaking off the painting.3
The painting has undergone numerous restorations and remarkably survived a bombing raid in August of 1943, when a protective curtain hung over it prevented irreparable damage. Even so, the painting is just a shadow of what it originally was; its now dulling, neutral colors were once vivid and luminous.
As stated earlier, it was commissioned for a dining hall, but because we usually see the image cropped, we don’t realize that it was actually quite ingenious in its original setting.
Da Vinci made it look as though Jesus and his disciples were eating right there with the monks. The table at which the disciples sat was just like the ones the monks used, as were the dishes, the glassware, and even the tablecloth, with its blue embroidery and fringed ends. The architecture in the painting itself is an extension of the real architecture of the room in which it was painted. From the place occupied by the prior of the convent at meal-times, the painting appears as a continuation of the real refectory building, and the figure of Christ seems to offer the elements from the picture to the real spectators outside it. He chose to paint the moment when Jesus had just told his friends that one of them would soon betray him. The disciples were shown reacting in individual ways, with gestures and facial expressions that were very theatrical and full of emotion.4
Da Vinci’s intention was to present a character study, which is one of the reasons the painting took him four years to complete. The final work was preceded by a long series of preparatory drawings which are today in various collections around the world. The figures which gave Leonardo the greatest trouble were those of Christ and Judas, so much so that while the work was in progress, the prior of the convent went to the Ludovico, the Duke who had commissioned the work, to complain because they had not yet even been sketched.
“Perhaps the fathers know how to paint?” retorted Da Vinci to Ludovico. “How can they judge an artistic creation? For one whole year I have gone every day, morning and evening, to the Borghetto, where the scum of humanity live, to find a face that will express the villainy of Judas, and I have not yet found it. Perhaps I could take as a model the prior who has been complaining about me to your Excellency.”5
Understanding that Jesus was celebrating the Passover meal is critical for understanding how he fulfills its promises of redemption, and brings it to a new level in the lives of his followers. From the time Abraham told Isaac in Genesis 22:8 that “God himself will provide the lamb for the offering, my son” until now, the story of God’s redemption is the story that we have to get right.
Telling the story of how God himself redeemed his people out of Egypt, gave the covenant, and dwelled among them — all of this is commemorated during the Seder. It is vital to understanding Jesus and his ministry as the great fulfillment of that first act of redemption by God. The story is all about the sacrifice, the covenantal meal, blessing, teaching, and making disciples. This needs to be conveyed accurately in words and in pictures for those who come behind us to know the truth.
When you consider the impact that Da Vinci’s wrong picture has had in etching our picture of Jesus, intentionally or not, you can realize the seriousness of taking things out of context. Along with this, due to the innumerable “restorations” and re-paintings of Da Vinci’s work over 500 years, we cannot even be sure that what we see today is what he actually painted.
This scenario has been a great example of what we must not do with scripture. As we are learning and studying we should always be careful to keep things in their historical and cultural context. So as we listen, and dig, and teach, and paint, let us pray for much wisdom so that all those whom we disciple will hear a story, and see a picture that is bright, and clear, and true.
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
At 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.
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.
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.
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.”
3See 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 Jesus ‘ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels -Volume One (ed. R. Steven Notley et al.; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 65-73.
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.
How would the original audience of the Bible have understood the first chapters of Genesis? What meaning did they find in the creation accounts? Could it have been different than how modern Christians read the Bible?
Our Western culture places a high value on scientific data, chronological order, abstract ideas and philosophical reasoning. In contrast, Eastern societies emphasize relationships and use stories and concrete physical images to describe reality.1 Because of this, we expect our Bibles to speak in sophisticated abstractions about eternity and the nature of God.
Old Testament stories about eating apples, building arks and talking to burning bushes seem silly and childish to us. Until we learn to grasp the Bible’s very different way of communicating, we’ll struggle to fully appreciate the profound meaning it relays in a different cultural language.
Nowhere is this more true than in the book of Genesis. When we focus only on the physical details, we completely miss the point. For instance, the flood account is often discussed in terms of its impact on geology. Completely forgotten are its profound ideas about the sinfulness of humanity and God’s response. We overlook the important theological statements about the universal corruption of man, and how through the covenant with Noah, God committed himself to find a way to redeem humankind rather than to condemn it.2 If you don’t realize that the biblical writers were explaining theology through story, you’ll miss the fact that the flood narrative actually points ahead toward the work of Christ.
What if we took another look at the creation account of Genesis 1, considering that it is a deeply Hebraic text? Let’s consider what would have been important and meaningful to listener of Abraham’s time.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
How would Abraham have reacted to this first line of the Bible? It may surprise you that the account in the Bible was likely not the first story he would have heard about the creation of the world. Several myths are known from the Ancient Near East that circulated in his time.3
Most creation stories featured wars and relationships between human-like gods and goddesses. These myths taught that through sexual procreation, or by acts of violence and murder the creation was formed: the seas, the sky, the land. The gods were limited in power and intent on gaining dominance over the other gods, and the world was created as a product of their wars. Humans were created to serve as their slaves, to cater to their whims.4
The biblical account is utterly unique among the creation stories of its time. The revolutionary idea that all that exists was the handiwork of one vast, powerful God was almost unbelievable to polytheists, who imagined that many small gods reigned over the earth.
The idea that the creation was “very good” and that humankind was special to God was also completely unheard of. In pagan cultures, humankind was a minor afterthought of the gods, and humanity lived in fear of the capricious gods who cared nothing for them. It is important to realize how many foundational ideas are contained in this first chapter of the Bible, and how radical they would have been in their time.5
In Abraham’s world, it would have been obvious that the biblical creation account was deliberately contradicting the pagan myths that were widespread in that day. It would have shocked them to hear that the things that most people worshipped, like the sun and the moon, were simply inanimate objects that were created by the true God (Gen. 1:16).
Neither the sun or moon are even named, except to call them the “greater light” and “lesser light,” in order to hint at their insignificance. Similarly, magical sea monsters like the tannin (a large reptile) and leviathan were regarded as gods in many myths. Genesis specifically says that God made the tannin along with other animals of the sea (v. 21), thereby stripping it of its divinity. In this way, the Bible was “demythologizing” the world and teaching that there is only one God, creator of all things.6
What is not said in the creation account
Another contrast between the biblical creation account and other ancient stories is that the Bible makes not attempt to explain the origins of God. A goal of many creation myths was to tell the origins of the gods themselves, as an apologetic to convince people of their existence.
In contrast, from the very first sentence of Genesis the reality of God is assumed. This awesome God simply felt no need to explain his own origins. This a prominent characteristic of God that we see throughout the Bible– that in his majesty he simply does not answer every question humans have.
We see this same characteristic later in God’s conversation with Job. Job asked God why he allows innocent people to suffer, and God didn’t give him an answer. Instead, he responds by asking him questions, and challenging him to explain the mysteries of creation: where the snow and hail come from, and how the foundations of the earth were laid (Job 38-40).
Through this response, God was showing Job that he could not answer his questions because the human mind simply cannot comprehend God’s reasoning. We forget that God created and designed everything: from neutrinos to bacteria to ecosystems to galaxies. As Isaiah 55:9 says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
When God wanted to show Job something that is utterly beyond human understanding he chose the creation, with the assumption is that humans can never completely comprehend its design. This is good to keep in mind as we read Genesis: God’s infinite knowledge simply cannot be brought down into human terms.
The Grand Symmetry of Creation
The creation accounts in Genesis are an extreme simplification of God’s activity into statements that all of humanity could understand. For instance, it says that “man was created from the dust of the earth” but it says nothing about how God designed organs and tissues and cells. Other passages also employ poetic “telescoping” of God’s activity, like the phrase that says that God “brings forth bread from the earth” (Ps. 104:14). This doesn’t mean that bread loaves magically arise out of the soil, but that through a complex series of events, God causes grain to grow that we can harvest and make into bread.
Looking more in depth at the story of the first six days reveals amazing beauty and order in God’s creative activity. Most Christians are unaware of the symmetry of the design over the days, and the delightful imagery that the Hebrew words employ. At first the earth is formless and empty. The phrase “formless and empty” is very poetic in Hebrew: tohu va vohu. Interestingly, God addresses the “formlessness,” tohu, on the first three days by separating the various elements each day:
Day 1: God separates light from dark, and creates day and night.
Day 2: God separates the “waters above” from the “waters below” and creates sky and sea.
Day 3: God separates the waters below from the dry areas and creates land and oceans. He also creates a garden.
Then, God addresses the “emptiness,” bohu, of creation by filling the domains created in the first three days.
Day 4: God creates lights — the sun, moon and stars — to “fill” and reign over the day and the night (note that day and night were made on Day 1)
Day 5: God creates birds to fill the skies, and sea creatures to fill the sea (both created on Day 2)
Day 6: God creates land animals to fill the dry land, and he creates humans to live in the garden (created on Day 3).
Clearly, the structure of the days is meant to show the amazing orderliness and grand design of God.7 He first creates the space itself, names it, and then later fills it in an orderly manner.
The Message in the Creation Account
A key to understanding the creation account is to see that its goal is to explain the meaning of all things in God’s sight, rather than the mechanical way in which they were created. As Genesis 2:4 says, “These are the toledot (“begats,” generations) of the heavens and the earth: their being created.”8 In the same way genealogies are given to explain the relationships of people, the Genesis accounts are meant to explain the relationships between the parts of the creation.
One implication is that chronological order is not the point of the creation story. We can see this by comparing the account in Genesis 1 to the second story in Genesis 2, where everything is made in a different sequence. Humans are created first, then plants, and then animals (Gen. 2:4-20).
To us, it is a problem that the two accounts are not in the same order, but chronology was not an overriding concern in the ancient world.9 Even though the sequences and timing are different, both stories have the same extremely important conclusion — that humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation. We are unique in bearing the image of God and deriving our life from God himself.
In the Image of God
It is hard to overemphasize the revolutionary impact of the idea that humans are made in the “image of God.” Human life is uniquely precious to God, and each person is infinitely valuable to him. This powerful idea was behind many humanitarian laws of the Torah compared to other law codes of the time.10
Through the statement that “God created man from the dust and breathed the breath of life into him,” we can see the amazing paradox that unlike the rest of creation, we are the work of God’s own hands, yet unlike animals, we receive our spirit from God himself. We are as insignificant as dust, and yet we bear the imprint of God himself!
We can even see the basics of the Gospel in embryonic form in these first passages of Genesis. We see the power and majesty of the True God of the universe, his incredible creativity and infinite wisdom, and his elegant design of the cosmos.
More importantly, we see his great concern about life and what is good, and even more than that, his precious children, the human race. By understanding our enormous value in the eyes of God, we can see the reason why even when humanity falls into sin and rebels against him, he will go to amazing lengths to redeem us and bring us back to himself.
3 Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), pp. 4-18. Note: Much of the article above is based on the first chapter of this classic book by Sarna, which is highly recommended for further study.
4 The idea of slavery to God or other gods comes up throughout the Bible, and shows the enormous difference between the true God and all others. See the article “Who Are You Going to Work For?“.
9 Some books of the Old Testament were written out of chronological order because it just wasn’t a priority as we see it (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for instance). This may also be why some of the stories of Jesus’ life are also in a different order in different gospels. See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, (En-Gedi, 2005) pp. 35-38.
Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, we find some of Jesus’ most challenging teachings. He said that those who do and teach others to do even the least of God’s commands will be called “great” in his kingdom. He speaks about having “righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees,” and then he tightens many laws, comparing lust to adultery, and anger to murder, etc. He then makes extreme statements about cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin, and concludes with words about aiming to be perfect, like God himself.
These words of Jesus are a struggle for many of us. One traditional approach to dealing with them is to say that Jesus was actually showing how impossible it is to earn our way to heaven, to cause us to ask for salvation by grace instead. However, it’s hard to believe that Jesus was setting up impossible standards simply to discourage people from keeping them. Jesus challenged his disciples to live according to his teachings, and he did so himself. Understanding his Jewish context better will allow us to unravel several “knots” in this passage.
First of all, it is important to understand that “entering the kingdom of Heaven” is not synonymous with “going to heaven when you die.” The phrase “kingdom of Heaven,” malkhut shemayim, (mal-KHOOT sha-MA-yeem) is synonymous with “kingdom of God,” and it refers to God’s redemptive reign on earth right now. To “enter” or to “receive” his kingdom was to enthrone God as your king, committing yourself to be a part of God’s “team” and to do his will.
Jesus’ references to the “kingdom of Heaven” in the Sermon on the Mount were really about how to aim to do God’s will as members of his kingdom, not how to earn your way to heaven.1 Our salvation is based on Jesus’ atonement for our sins, not on “earning our way.”
The Idea of Hasidut
Jesus may have actually had an idea in mind that was in the culture at that time. He appears to be focusing on the idea of hasidut – (hah-see-DOOT), a rabbinic term which is often translated “piety.”2 It means to walk closely with God and be utterly obedient to him. A hasid (ha-SEED), a pious person, eagerly asks the question, “What more can I do to please you?”
The idea is that they don’t focus on the minimum requirements, but on going beyond the rules to serve God. An Orthodox Jewish source describes the idea of being a hasid this way:
The hasid is one who goes beyond the letter of the law in his service of G-d. He does not do only what he is told, but he looks for ways to fulfill G-d’s will. This requires intelligence and planning; one must anticipate just what G-d wants of him and how he can best use his own talents in service of his Creator. [This is] in direct contrast to mock-piety – fasting, wailing, rolling in the snow, etc…. G-d has no interest in senseless service – that we do things just because they’re hard (and get us a lot of notice). Piety is not doing things which hurt. It is careful, planned and responsible service of G-d. We are not to sacrifice ourselves for G-d with self-destructive acts of devotion; we are to *live* for Him.3
The goal of most rabbis was to interpret God’s Torah (law, teaching or instruction) so that people could apply it to their lives and live within its limits; but if you think about it, laws can only define the very minimum required to not sin, they can’t legislate what you could do purely out of love. If this is Jesus’ thinking, it clarifies his words about “righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees…” (Mt 5:20). The phrase “scribes and Pharisees” may not be about them as people, but as the recognized interpreters of the law.
One translation says, “Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law…” (New English Translation). You could read this as, “do more than what the finest interpreters of the law say you must do.” Then the passage isn’t about being stricter than the strictest, but about seeking to do God’s will beyond its official interpretation. Jesus was not saying, “sit back and enjoy your free ride to heaven,” but exactly the opposite — “if God is really your king, you need to do your utmost to please him.”
Hasidut and the Sermon on the Mount
Understanding the idea of hasidut helps us see the overall message of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus points out various minimums set in the law, and then says to go beyond that. The law says “don’t kill” but you should not even stay angry. The law says, “don’t commit adultery” but you should not even lust.
The law says you can take vows in God’s name, but instead, you should be a person who has such integrity that your “yes” and “no” are just as good. Not only should you not seek revenge against your enemies, you should find ways to show them and everyone else the love of God. Loan people your money, carry their burdens. Anything!
Ultimately, the whole sermon is not so much about a list of toughened rules, but about exhorting us to change where our aim is. It is easy to look for what the minimum is so that you can just do that, but in every case Jesus is saying, “Don’t live by the minimum!” Don’t say to yourself, as long as I don’t commit adultery, it’s fine to lust. Don’t say that as long as I don’t kill someone, I can be furious with them. If you want to be a part of God’s redemptive kingdom on earth, don’t ask how little you can do, but ask how much you can do, to please your Father in heaven.
“Fear of Sin”
A central aspect of being a hasid in Jewish thinking was that one tried to walk intimately with God. To be close to God meant that you needed to do everything to keep sin out of your life. From this came the concept of yireh chet, (yeer-EH het) “fear of sin.” Here, “fear” doesn’t mean being terrified of punishment or of God’s anger. Rather, it is to be horrified by the idea of having sin disrupt your intimate walk with God.
As a result, a person who is a “sin-fearer” would do everything possible to keep it out of his or her life. Jesus’ strong words about cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye fit with this idea of “fearing sin.” Jesus had a great revulsion to sin because he realized what it did to break the relationship between God and man. He used hyperboles to motivate his listeners to avoid it at all costs.
A person who was aiming for hasidut set his own boundaries inside of the rules as others kept them, so that he didn’t come close to breaking the Law. A recent example is two ultra-orthodox leaders from Jerusalem who booked a flight to the US and bought all the seats in the first class section of a plane, requested only male flight attendants, and even taped over the TV monitors.4 They went to enormous expense to avoid being tempted by sin.
This is especially appropriate to think about during the month of Elul, which usually occurs during the summer on the Gregorian calendar. Elul is the last month before the High Holy Days and the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and ask for forgiveness of their sins. It is traditional to spend the month in self-examination and repentance.
Interestingly, many sermons mention that the letters of the month Elul, aleph-lamed-vav-lamed, are the beginning letters of the phrase Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This is the highly romantic phrase from Song of Solomon that is often engraved on wedding rings. The take-home point is that during the month of Elul, our motivation for repentance should come from a desire to rid ourselves of anything that may have come between us and a deeply loving relationship with God.5
The Danger of Trying to Be a Hasid
Throughout the centuries there have been movements in Judaism and in Christianity that have tried to draw closer to God by becoming fastidious about observance and in keeping away from sin. While the goal is admirable, whenever a person tries to live this way there are many potential traps. One can easily become a legalist, or prideful, or hypocritical, or elitist. In light of this, it is interesting to read the following quote:
There are seven kinds of Pharisees: the “shoulder” Pharisee, who ostentatiously carries his good deeds on his shoulder so all can see them; the “wait-a-moment” Pharisee, who wants you to wait while he performs a mitzvah (good deed); the bruised Pharisee, who runs into a wall while looking at the ground to avoid seeing a woman; the “reckoning” Pharisee, who commits a sin, then does a good deed and balances the one against the other; the “pestle” Pharisee, whose head is bowed in false humility, like a pestle in a mortar; the Pharisee who asks, “What is my duty, so that I may do it?” as if he thought he had fulfilled every obligation already; the Pharisee from fear, like Job; and the Pharisee from love, like Abraham.6
Many recognize how similar this passage is to Jesus’ “woes” of Matthew 23. It might surprise Christians that the Pharisaic movement practiced its own self-criticism and noted the same kinds of errors that Jesus did. More than one scholar has pointed out that Jesus’ statements might be like the “seven kinds” saying in another way.
Instead of accusing every person of all of the sins that he speaks of, they assert that each “woe” is pointed at only the people who are falling into those sins. Instead of the blanket statement, “Woe to all of you — you’re all greedy, legalistic, and hypocritical!” he was saying something like, “Woe to you who are greedy, and woe to you who are legalistic, and you who are hypocritical!” Rather than condemning the whole group, he may have been pointing out the errors, just as the other rabbis did.7
It’s easy for us to read these passages about the seven types of Pharisees smugly, as if only the foolish Pharisees could ever have fallen into these problems. Instead, we should see them as wise words to anyone who is passionate about trying to live as God intended. There are so many ways to go wrong — by slipping into pride, or legalism, or by becoming hypocritical.
The answer is not to just give up and be worldly. The rabbis have an excellent insight that sounds like Jesus may have been saying the same thing. They point out that of all of the types of Pharisees, the only one that is truly commendable is the one that serves entirely out of love. One rabbi says it this way:
To serve with love does not mean just following the Torah and commandments, and not walking in the path of wisdom because of other reasons: to avoid bad consequences, and to be rewarded. Rather, it is doing the right thing because it is right, and in the end good comes because of it. This quality is very great and not every wise man attained it. This is the rank of our father Abraham whom the Holy blessed One has called “my lover” [Is. 41:8] because he served only for the sake of love. The Holy blessed One has commanded this virtue through Moshe as it is said: “You shall love Hashem your God.” When one loves God with proper love, automatically one performs all commandments with love.8
This fits completely with Jesus’ statement that all the commands can be summarized by “Love the Lord your God,” and even quotes that same verse. It seems that Jesus and later rabbis both saw that when you are obeying God purely out of love for him, you are eager to go beyond the minimum. When your love for God motivates you to keep from things that tempt you into sin, you can set up boundaries without becoming arrogant or legalistic about them.
Hasidut: The True Goal of Discipleship
This sermon of Jesus is difficult, but it is his goal for us as his disciples. No one is capable of doing this when they first believe, but we can aim to be a little more like this every day of our lives.
In some churches we don’t hear much of this message because Jesus’ great commission to “raise up disciples of all nations” has been interpreted as only meaning, “share the gospel with the lost.” Then the emphasis is on how easy it is to receive the free gift of salvation, and the only thing that we teach after that is how to evangelize others.
A disciple is much more than a mere convert, however, and believing in Christ is not God’s supreme goal for us — it is only the beginning of a life of walking ever closer to him. To go no deeper than “accepting Christ” is to be like the seed that fell on the rock or in the thorns — it sprouted, but bore little or no fruit (Lk 8:4-15). As critical as it is to share the message of Christ with the world, Jesus’ challenge to us is to always seek to go higher and deeper in our love and service to him.
2 Many points in this article are based on the talk “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer,” by David Pileggi, which was given at the Insights into Jesus of Nazareth Seminar, which is available at the link. Also, see “Jesus and the Hasidim” by Shmuel Safrai, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.
5 Many stories are based on this saying about Elul. An example is at this link.
6 Babylonian Talmud (supplement), Avot de R. Nathan 37.4.
7 David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992) p. 69. Also, Menachem Mansoor, Encyclopedia Judaica, (Jerusalem: Macmillan and Keter, 1972) 13:366.
8 Rebbi Moshe ben Mimoun, “Hasiduth: Love and Av’oda” The word “Hashem” means “the name” in Hebrew and substitutes for God’s name, as does the phrase “the Holy Blessed One.” This is done out of reverence, so that the name of God is not used irreverently and thereby profaned. This is also the rationale behind spelling “God” with a dash in the middle, and also Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” where “Heaven” is an indirect reference to God. This is actually an illustration of “fear of sin” – going out of one’s way to avoid doing wrong. For more on the Jewish traditions regarding the name of God, See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005), pp. 55-58.
Throughout Jesus’ time on earth, the focus of his teaching was the Kingdom of God. In fact, he says, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). Even though Jesus’ ministry focused on it, many things he says about it leave us scratching our heads. Is it now or in the future? Why is it so important to him? Why is it good news? Once again, 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 Jesus’ day, and even now, Jews show respect for God by not pronouncing his name, but substituting another word. For example, the prodigal son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight” (Luke 15:21). So, Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct “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 common in rabbinic teaching in his day. Malchut, which we translate as “kingdom,” actually refers more to the actions of a king — his reign and authority, and 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?
Apparently, the discussion of Jesus’ day was focused on how and when God would establish his kingdom on earth. They were thinking of prophecies like those in Zechariah that say that one day,
The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. (Zech. 14:9)
We may wonder why they felt that God wouldn’t be king from the beginning of creation, but they believed that as long as the world was filled with evil and other nations worshipped other gods, the people of the world refused to acknowledge him as its king. Especially in Jesus’ day this feeling was very strong. God’s people, Israel, were suffering at the hands of the Romans. They longed for the day that God would come to save his people and fully establish his reign over the earth.
The reason the ministry of Jesus focuses on the kingdom was because it was the role of the Messiah to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Messianic passages in the Old Testament focus on how God was going to anoint a king from the people of Israel to reign over the whole world, and that he would bring God’s kingdom to earth (see Is. 11, Ps. 2, 72, Dan. 2 and others). Because Jesus was the Messiah, he was describing his own mission as the Anointed King sent by God.
We can imagine that there would be much speculation in Jesus’ time about how God would establish his reign over the whole world. Obviously, they thought, when the Messiah came, he would establish God’s reign by conquering the enemies of Israel. They read many prophecies about the Messiah that were images of a mighty king who defeated his foes and then took the throne, for instance:
The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One (Messiah, in Hebrew). … Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill. … You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery. (Ps. 2:2,5-6, 9)
And, they read about the great and dreadful “day of the Lord” where he would come to judge the enemies of Israel, and they longed for that day. Messianic prophecy also talks about a “suffering servant” and a “Prince of Peace,” but the people of Jesus’ day expected that the Messiah would bring God’s judgment. This attitude was pervasive in Jesus’ time. The Essenes formed ascetic communities in the desert and called themselves the “sons of light,” waiting for the great war when God would destroy the “sons of darkness,” which was everyone except them. Even Jesus’ disciples were convinced that this was Jesus’ mission. They asked him “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And, in the words of John the Baptist, we hear him warning his listeners that because the Messiah was here, the judgment of God was imminent:
Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand to thoroughly clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:9, 17).
Jesus’ Teaching About the Kingdom
Jesus teaching about the kingdom was to correct his people’s expectations of his messianic role, and even their understanding of God’s nature itself. Those around him wanted God to reign over the earth by destroying anyone who didn’t acknowledge him as king. Jesus, in contrast, says that God would establish his kingdom on earth, not by judgment, but by mercy to sinners, who would be reconciled with God through Jesus’ atoning death. This is the fundamental message of Jesus — the good news of the kingdom of God is that the Messiah had come, and was building his kingdom by bringing forgiveness to anyone who would repent, rather than bringing God’s judgment to the world.
If we see this as Jesus’ message, it gives insight on parables about the kingdom that are hard to understand otherwise. One seems to be directly intended to correct John the Baptist’s picture of the Messiah coming in judgment to establish God’s kingdom. We hear from John that “the axe is already laid at the root of the tree“, ready to chop it down because it doesn’t bear fruit. But Jesus tells the parable:
A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down. (Luke 13:6-9)
The point of this parable is to emphasize God’s mercy rather than his imminent judgment. Jesus seems to be speaking about the same tree that John was, only here the tree is given another chance, rather than being chopped down. Was John the Baptist wrong about Jesus? No, actually, because Jesus will eventually return in judgment, just as John said. When Jesus speaks about his return, he says that then he will come to separate the sheep from the goats, and judge the world. John was just premature in his timing, as were Jesus’ disciples. This is probably why John asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” He was expecting Jesus to bring the judgment of God, but this was to come later.
What are the implications of Jesus’ teaching?
Even though the main difference between Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of God and those around him was in the timing of the judgment, this difference had profound implications for the kind of kingdom it is, and the character of God himself.
The picture that most had about the kingdom is that it would be established through God’s judgment. It seems to be a logical answer to the problem of evil. In one sudden event, God would assert his power and vanquish his enemies, the “wicked” of the nations around them, and those of their own nation who were “sinners.” Only the righteous would be left to be God’s Kingdom. They assumed that they were the righteous that would survive the judgment, and that their enemies would not survive. This was good news to those who were the “righteous,” who were on God’s side, because they would have the victory.
Jesus utterly disagrees with this. He says that God’s kingdom had come to earth, but it would be a time of healing and forgiveness. He said that his kingdom would start out small like a mustard seed, but would grow as people would accept Christ and enthrone God as their King. In Jesus’ understanding, a person was brought into the kingdom of God when the person decided 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. His idea was very close to that of other rabbis who said that when a person committed himself daily to love God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength, that he had “received upon himself the kingdom of heaven.” This kingdom would be invisible, like leaven that some how works its way through bread to make it rise. We can hear this in this conversation:
Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20 – 21)
Jesus is saying through this that he was the Messiah, and he truly had brought God’s kingdom to earth. But it would be a very different kind of kingdom because it would grow through forgiveness of sin rather than judgment. It was good news to the sinners who knew that if God came in judgment, they would be the ones to be judged!
Also, because the kingdom was growing slowly by God’s mercy toward sinners, it would be like like wheat that grows up among “tares,” or weeds (Matt 13:24-30), representing evil. When the tares were found growing in the field, instead of pulling them out, the farmer waited until the end. The farmer was merciful, preferring to leave the weeds alone in his desire not to harm the wheat. Once again, this contrasts with John’s saying that the Messiah would come to winnow — meaning to separate the wheat from the chaff, or good from evil, for destruction. Again, Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom had truly come to the earth, but evil would not be ended, so it would not be a kind of utopia. Rather, it would grow in the midst of evil because of God’s mercy, so that there was still hope for the enemies if they chose to repent and enter.
If we have this understanding, many of Jesus’ sayings make more sense. His kingdom is made up of the poor in spirit, those who know they are guilty of sin, who come to God for forgiveness. The tax collectors and prostitutes were the first to enter Jesus’ kingdom of mercy, and the last were the outwardly religious who really were hoping for God to judge their enemies. The merciful, who do not want to see God’s judgment come on others, are shown mercy themselves. One day, the kingdom would come in power when Jesus returns to judge, but he would wait as long as possible to allow as many to enter as can.
Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of God gives us a profoundly different understanding of God’s character. It shows that God is, at his very heart, merciful and wanting no one to perish. He teaches us to love our enemies, because he himself is merciful toward his enemies, giving them time to change their ways. It is easy to see what our response must be to Jesus’ message. We must examine ourselves, know that no one is righteous in the eyes of God, and repent and receive God as our King. Only because the Messianic King came to die to establish his Kingdom, rather than to kill his enemies, can we, his former enemies become members of his Kingdom and children of his Father.
When Christians begin to learn more about Jesus’ Jewishness, it comes as a surprise that many of his teachings have parallels in those of other rabbis of his time. For instance, his command to forgive others so that one’s sins will be forgiven (Mt 18:21-35) is found in earlier Jewish writings.1 Even when Jesus disagreed with others, he was not casting aside all of Judaism, but was usually affirming one rabbinic position over another in an area of debate. For example, when asked about divorce, he disagreed with the teachings Hillel, but agreed with those of Shammai.2 Rather than being entirely at odds with his countrymen, his ministry built on the teachings of his day and brought them to a new level.
Learning that Jesus was not the first person to teach some ideas seems to undermine his uniqueness. What about his teaching drew such enormous numbers of passionate followers? What about Jesus’ teachings was unique?
Jesus’ Radical Teaching
According to one scholar, there was one major theme of Jesus’ ministry that went beyond anything any other rabbi taught and was entirely unique to him.3 Not only was it radical, it also was central to his lifestyle, his teaching about the Kingdom of God, and his mission as the Messiah. It is the following:
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt 5:43-45)
This is probably the most difficult command Jesus ever gave, and even for us today it might seem impossible.4 But understanding them in their context is critical for grasping the implications of Jesus’ ministry and our calling as members of his Kingdom.
“Hate Your Enemy” in the First Century
Scholars used to wonder who Jesus was quoting as saying, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” It is not in the Scriptures, and the rabbis of Jesus’ time did not teach this. The Dead Sea Scrolls finally gave an answer by revealing that one group of Jesus’ contemporaries, the Essenes, took an oath twice each day to “to hate forever the unjust and to fight together with the just.” They referred to themselves as the “Sons of Light” who shared an “eternal but concealed hatred of the men of the Pit,” as they awaited the Day of Vengeance — the great war when they would destroy the “Sons of Darkness.”5
Like others of the time, their understanding from the Scriptures was that God would establish his Kingdom on earth by destroying his enemies. To them it was a good thing to hate their enemies, who were the enemies of God. God’s “enemies” were not just the national enemies of Israel, but all sinners. Many passages in the Old Testament equate sinfulness with being God’s enemies, like “For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish; all evildoers will be scattered.” Psa. 92:9. Obviously they felt that if they should hate God’s enemies, the sinners of the world, they were among the righteous themselves.
In contrast, among the rabbis there were some who, like Jesus, pointed out that God shows mercy toward sinners. It was said, “The day of rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous.”6 Like Jesus, they pointed out that God cares for even those who hate him by providing for their needs. Someday judgment would come to everyone, but before then, God shows his kindness to everyone in the world. Jesus went beyond this, however, to challenge his listeners to share God’s unlimited love to even their worst enemies.
The Son of Man – Judge of God’s Enemies
Jesus’ understanding of God’s mercy toward his enemies was central to his teaching about the Kingdom, and part of his radical challenge to the common belief about the Messiah. Most believed that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would liberate God’s people from his enemies.7 In ancient times, kings acted as the supreme judge of their land, and the Messianic King would do so as well. He would be the judge that would bring the Kingdom of God to earth by destroying the evil of the world.
One of the titles of the Messiah that was most strongly linked to the role of judge was the “Son of Man,” because in Daniel 7, it speaks of the Messiah being led into the heavenly courtroom where the book of judgment was open, and being given authority by God to reign over and judge humanity:
The court was seated, and the books were opened…
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. (Dan 7:10, 13-14)
Several New Testament passages speak about the Son of Man as judge, including, “[God] has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man” (Jn 5:27), and Rev. 14:14, in which the Son of Man carries a sickle for the final harvest of judgment. Often Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man,” and he also used the term to speak about the coming judgment: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Mt 16:27). However, he consistently spoke of this as in the future, and stressed that now was the time of God’s mercy.
Fascinatingly, Jesus uses the title, “Son of Man” to show his authority to forgive sins as well. When the paralyzed man was lowered into the room by his friends, Jesus said, “But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home” (Lk 5:24). Jesus is the Messianic Judge with the capacity to forgive or condemn, and he used his power to forgive.
Another powerful example is in the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who repented of his corruption. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors because they had “sold out” to their Roman oppressors and profited from their own people’s misery. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector who had become very rich at others’ expense, and certainly he was considered a great sinner and God’s “enemy.” But yet when he repented, Jesus used his authority as the Son of Man to proclaim salvation to him from his sins. Jesus, as the King and Judge, was expanding his Kingdom through mercy, as he forgave God’s enemies instead of condemning them.8
Expanding the Kingdom by Forgiving Enemies
The scandal of the Gospel was that everyone thought that the Messiah was going to establish God’s Kingdom by destroying God’s enemies, but Jesus was bringing God’s Kingdom by showing God’s love for his enemies instead. As their King, he personally would suffer for their sins and purchase their forgiveness. Paul says this very thing:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:8, 10)
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col 1:21-22)
For many in the early Jewish church, the most shocking and scandalous application of this truth was that God’s love extended even to Gentiles. Many laws were in place to keep Jews from being defiled by contact with “Gentile sinners” (Gal 2:15), who as a group were thought to be characterized by the three most terrible crimes in Jewish law: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. With this dim view of the Gentiles as “enemies of God,” we can imagine the surprise when God poured out his Spirit on them! It took a special vision from God to convince Peter that he could even enter a Gentile home (Acts 10:28). Paul was a perfect apostle to them, as a former enemy to all God was doing through the early church. Such was God’s amazing love.
Being a Part of the Kingdom of Mercy
It is only when we see ourselves as God’s former enemies that we realize that our admittance into his Kingdom was because God’s love for his enemies extends even to us. Perhaps the reason that the Gospel was so difficult for many to accept was that Jesus’ listeners saw themselves as already “on God’s side,” as righteous victims of suffering at the hands of the Romans, and felt justified in wanting God to destroy them. They were happy to read about God’s coming judgment in the Scriptures. It was the prostitutes and tax collectors who could see themselves as “enemies” that wanted to take up this offer of forgiveness. Only when we see that we are saved by God’s amazing love do we realize our obligation to show the same kind of love to others as well.
1 Joshua Ben Sirach said in approximately 180 BC, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Sirach 28:2-4) Jesus built on this teaching in a powerful way in the parable of the Good Samaritan — see the article, “Loving Your Neighbor, Who is Like You.”
It’s taken a while, but finally the move of the En-Gedi website is complete! There are now about 500 articles now along with many other things, like a glossary, bookstore and freebies page.
One new article that is of particular interested is on the Puzzling Passages page. This is a three-part series called What it Means to “Fulfill the Law.” This phrase was an idiom that was native to Judaism and is widely misunderstood by Christians. Seeing how it was used by Jesus, Paul and the rabbis sheds a lot of light on Scripture.
We are adding more articles all the time. (If you’d like to help, please consider a donation to help support the project.)