Has Da Vinci Painted Our Picture of Jesus?

by Bruce Okkema

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.

~~~~

1 Dwight A. Pryor, “Misconceptions about Jesus and the Passover” Series by the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, Ohio jcstudies.com
2 Diane Stanley, Leonardo Da Vinci, William Morrow & Company, New York, 1996
3 Francesca Romei, Leonardo Da Vinci, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1994
4 Diane Stanley, ibid
5 Liana Bortolon, The Life & Times of Leonardo, The Curtis Publishing Company, New York, 1997

New Light on Jesus’ Last Week

by Lois Tverberg

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

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

Important Data to Consider

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Conflict with the Priests

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

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

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

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

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.

Prophecies Fulfilled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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

~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities” 20.9.1.

10 See the En-Gedi article “Son of David, Builder of the House.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!

by Lois Tverberg

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 Heaven imagery 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:

Boy with axe cutting tree

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)

Vineyard grabes vineThe 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.

Wheat field chaff

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.

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Photos: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash, Annie Spratt on UnsplashDavid Köhler on Unsplash, Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Jesus’ Most Radical Teaching

by Lois Tverberg

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 pacifies two warriorsJesus’ 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.

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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.

2 See “‘And’ or ‘In Order to’ Remarry” by David Bivin, available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

3 From a lecture entitled, “Do this and Live: The Ethics of Jesus,” available as part of an audio seminar from En-Gedi called, “The Gospel of Jesus and John the Baptist,” by Dr. Steven Notley.

4 It sounds as if Jesus is advocating complete pacifism, which was most likely not true. See “Do Not Resist Evil: Jesus’ View of Pacifism” at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

5 See the Manual of Discipline 9.21–23 and The Jewish War 2:139, by Josephus. Quotes are from “Us and Them: Loving Both,” available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

6 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a

7 For more about the common misunderstanding of the Messiah and Jesus’ teachings to challenge it, see “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!

8 See “Why Did Jesus call himself the ‘Son of Man’?” for a fascinating theory of why Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man” as both innocent victim and final judge.

* The three articles cited above by David Bivin are available in his book published by En-Gedi, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context.

Photos: Rufus Sarsaparilla, “Brindle Boxer and house cat.” “Jesus pacifies two warriors,” originally painted by Anton von Werner [Public domain].

Welcome to En-Gedi’s Brand New Site

June 2019 –

Shalom, friends!

It’s been a few years since I began this project of moving from the original En-Gedi website to this one. The EGRC.net website still has its fans, and is still up. En-Gedi is gradually moving over to this platform, which is organized more topically, to make it easier for people who are searching for articles.

Recently more in-depth articles have been added. The page that we’ve done the most on is Jesus’ Jewishness >> His Sayings in Context. There you see an introduction to the topic, along with brief articles and longer essays. At the bottom of the page are links to other useful sites.

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.)

Check out our glossary, bookstore and freebies page too, while you’re looking around.

Many thanks for your prayers and support,

Lois Tverberg

En Gedi