Jesus’ Surprising Answer

by Lois Tverberg

When Jesus was asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” the conversation leads to an answer that most Christians would find unacceptable, or at least confusing. It sounds as if by obeying the commandments, or even by loving God and our neighbor, we can somehow earn our own salvation!

We read this conversation in Luke 10:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, `Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:25-28

One explanation for Jesus’ response is that because the law expert is testing Jesus out of hostility, Jesus is deliberately affirming his “wrong” answer, so that later, when he realizes his inability to keep these commands perfectly, he will see that he must lean on God’s grace and just believe.

Jesus and Disciples

Most likely this is not what was going on. If this is true, it means that Jesus was playing a game with the lawyer, and that his words must be read knowing that no one ever could actually do what he just said to do. While this has satisfied some Christians, having additional information from Jesus’ first century Jewish context can lead to a better reading of this text that explains why Jesus accepted the answer without hidden qualifications.

We should start with the assumption that many times when other rabbis “tested” Jesus, it was not done with hostile intentions. The rabbinic style of public discussion from Jesus’ time even up to the present has been to pose a difficult question with the expectation of debate. A story is even told of a rabbi who greatly mourns the passing of his strongest adversary, because he had lost his best way to sharpen his intellect.1

We tend to assume that every conversation between Jesus and religious thinkers was antagonistic, and hear their questions as legalistic or manipulative. But several questions, like whether divorce was permissible, or what was the “greatest commandment,” were actually important discussions already permeating the rabbinic community of Jesus’ time.2

Love the Lord Your God

The key to understanding Jesus’ affirmative response is to look at the context of how the lawyer’s response was understood in that time. The first line of his answer says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind,” and comes from Deuteronomy 6:5. We hear “love” as inward affection, and it does mean that. But in Hebrew, the verb “love” can also refer to the outward display of committedness to another. It is to “act lovingly toward” or “to honor and be loyal to.” It was even used in covenants between kings after a war, when one would promise to “love” the other, meaning to show uncompromising loyalty to the other.3

Why is this important? Because then the statement “You shall love the Lord…” then becomes a statement of life commitment to God, and faithfulness to a relationship with him. This is very close to the Christian understanding that we need to have a personal relationship with God for salvation.

Interestingly, the rabbinic term for this idea — to commit yourself to a personal relationship with God, was to “receive the kingdom of Heaven,” very close to what Jesus referred to in his preaching. Why? The word “kingdom” refers to God’s reign or authority, and “Heaven” is a respectful euphemism for God. When we receive the reign of God, what we are actually doing is enthroning him as our king, committing our lives to be under his reign.

This yields a clue as to why Jesus spent so much of his ministry proclaiming the “kingdom of Heaven,” in the sense that he had come to open the way for all people to have a relationship with God through atonement by his blood, and that relationship could be described as “entering under God’s reign.”4

Another important thing about the lawyer’s response was that he was quoting from the Shema, the “pledge of allegiance” that Jews said as a statement of commitment to their relationship with God. The first line is “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone.” According to the Jewish Publication Society, the emphasis is not actually on proclaiming that “God is one,” a creed of monotheism (as is often said), but on the demand of utter loyalty between God and his people — that he alone is their God.5

Obedience Follows Relationship

It may be surprising to some that rabbinic thought of Jesus’ time embraced the idea that salvation comes by faith rather than by works, and they even saw that expressed in the Shema. They understood that the relationship with God must always come first, and only after we have that do we obey God’s commandments.

In the Mishnah6 there is a sermon based on the how the Shema is recited. A  person always begins with Deut. 6:4-9, which begins with “Hear O Israel, the Lord is Your God, the Lord alone.” Next they recite Deut. 11:13-21, which begins with the words, “So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today…” The rabbi said,

“Why do we always talk about God being our Lord before we say the part about obeying the commandments? Because we must first receive the kingdom of Heaven (meaning “enthrone God as our king,” or establish our relationship with him) and only then take on the yoke of the commandments.”7

We do not earn our relationship, we receive it as a gift from him, and the laws are not for earning God’s favor or getting into heaven, but for learning how to live to please him. One creative rabbi imagined that King David may have been thinking that when he wrote Psalm 141:1:

King David said, “Some trust in their fair and upright deeds, and some in the works of their fathers, but I trust in you. Although I have no good works, yet because I call upon you, you answer me.”8

Love your Neighbor as Yourself

The other commandment that the lawyer mentioned in Luke 10, “love your neighbor as yourself,” also has special significance. It is a quote from Leviticus 19:18, and it was singled out in ancient Jewish culture before we hear it from Jesus. It has a rare word, ve’ahavta, “and you shall love,” in common with that of words of the Shema that shows total commitment to God, “And you shall love the Lord your God…”

Even before Jesus’ time, those two verses were thought to be linked, in a poetic way, so that the way you expressed your total love and commitment to God, who you can’t see, was by showing love to your neighbor, who you can see. This is certainly a central teaching of Jesus too, and the overwhelming importance of this command is echoed in the rest of the New Testament. Peter says “above all, love one another” (1 Peter 4:8), and in the letters of John, that “this was the teaching you have heard from the very beginning – to love one another” (1 John 3:11).

It appears that this idea may have already been circulating in Jewish culture before his time, and the lawyer was repeating it to Jesus. If Jesus also had the first century understanding that loving your neighbor was the clearest expression of your commitment to God, he would have accepted the lawyer’s words as a way of describing how to live out your relationship with God in obedience and authenticity, by showing God’s love to those around you. Thus, the lawyer gave a very good answer, using first century Jewish terminology to say that we need to commit ourselves to the Lord and live our faith out wholeheartedly. And Jesus responds, “Yes, do this!”

The questioner then goes on to ask, “who is my neighbor,” which also was a legitimate question that was debated at the time, and Jesus gives brilliant insight to this too.9

 

The Challenge of A Different Understanding

Although this may be a challenge to our traditional Christian view, it suggests that there was some brilliant thinking going on before Jesus’ time, as God was preparing his people for the coming of his Son.

Certainly if Jesus was going to raise up a congregation of many thousand followers out of this Jewish nation (Acts 21:20), God needed to be preparing their hearts for their Messiah. Studying their thinking allows us to see Jesus’ answer as straightforward and clear. He affirms that we need to have a personal relationship with God, and show our commitment to him by loving others in the world around us.

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This essay is based, in part, on a talk given by Dr. Randall Buth at Mars Hill Bible Church on October 17, 2003. 

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1 Page xiii, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young. Hendrickson, 1995

2 See the article, “Divorce and Remarriage in Historical Perspective” by Steve Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

3 JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, by Jeffrey Tigay. Jewish Publication Society, 1996, p 77.

4 See the En-Gedi Bible commentary article, “What is the Kingdom of Heaven?

5 Excursus 10: The Shema in the JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, p 438-440.

6 The Mishnah is a book of legal rulings and commentary on the Torah written down about 200 AD that is record of sayings that go back to before the time of Jesus.

7 Berachot 2.2, Mishnah.

8 Midrash Psalms 141 (ed. Buber, pp. 530-531).

9 See the En-Gedi Director’s article, “Loving your Neighbor, Who is Like You.

Photos: Museum of MálagaChris Gallimore on Unsplash; Jon Tyson on Unsplash

How to Love the Lord

Learning about Jesus’ Jewish culture never ceases to add depth to his words. For instance, it appears that Jesus was involved in some of the same key discussions that other rabbis participated in. One important rabbinic discussion that was going on in Jesus’ time focused on the question, “Mah hu clal gadol b’Torah?” – literally, “What is commandment-big of the Law?” We can hear those very words being asked of Jesus in Mark:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31, NIV)

Jesus didn’t use his own words to summarize the Torah for the lawyer. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the first two lines of the Shema (pronounced “Shmah”), the “pledge of allegiance” that Jesus as an observant Jew would have said every morning and evening. By doing this, a Jew would remind himself of his commitment to love God, to dedicate himself to following God and doing his will.

The rabbis of Jesus’ day said that when a person prayed the Shema, he “received upon himself the kingdom of God,” meaning that he was placing God as king over his life. Some Jews teach their children the Shema as soon as they learn to talk! It is the central affirmation for a Jewish person of his or her commitment to the Lord. (Jesus’ next statement, “love your neighbor,” is from Leviticus 19:18. You can read about it here.)

Many have heard of the Shema. But it is helpful to unpack some of the richness of these lines that were central to Jesus and to his faith. Let’s look at some of what it means. First, lets look at the saying in Hebrew:

Shema (Hear)
Israel,
Adonai (the Lord)
elohenu (our god)
Adonai (the Lord)
echad! (one/alone)

Shema” is the first word and is usually translated “Hear!” But the word shema actually has a stronger meaning than that. It has the sense of “take heed” or “obey.” In fact, when we see the word “obey” in English in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word behind it is usually “shema”! When Jesus says “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” he really means, “you have heard my teaching, now take it to heart and obey it!” Likewise, the Shema is telling the Israelites to obey – to act out their belief in the Lord, not just to “hear.”

The word “echad” in Hebrew is the word for one. Jews and Christians have often debated its meaning, since Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity. Christians point out that it can mean a compound unity, like one bunch of grapes. But, the widely used Jewish translation of the Scriptures, the JPS Tanakh, says that the best reading of the word in this phrase really is not “one” but “alone.” So, instead of reading that sentence as “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”

This changes the emphasis of the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for their absolute allegiance to God. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Let’s look at the next phrase in Deuteronomy,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

On the surface, we think we understand heart, soul and strength, but knowing the Hebrew background of the words adds great richness to this command.

Heart (levav) in Hebrew does not just mean your emotions, but also means your mind and thoughts as well. So we are to use all of our thoughts to love the Lord – as Paul says, we “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5). In the gospels the phrase “and all your mind” is there to emphasize that fact, but from Moses’ time it would have been understood that way as well. Whenever we read “heart” in the Old Testament we should understand it in terms of the intellect as well as the emotions, because in Hebrew, it can mean your mind.

Soul (nephesh) also can have a different sense in Hebrew than just your “spirit” or “emotions.” Nephesh means “life” as well as “soul.” So the Jewish interpretation is that you are to love the Lord with all of your life, meaning with every moment throughout your life, and be willing even to sacrifice your life for him. If Jews are able, they will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to the God of Israel. Many a Jewish martyr has exclaimed the Shema with his last breath as a testimony to that fact.

Strength (me’od) is an unusual word usage which really means “much” or “very”. You could translate the passage “with all of your much-ness” or “with all of your increase”. It is interpreted to mean “with everything that you have” — your money, your time, your possessions and your family. Loving God with everything you have is a high calling indeed!

So, as we re-read Jesus’ favorite law from Jesus’ favorite book, we can capture it in this modern way:

“Listen up, Israel – The Lord is your God, he, and he alone!! You should love him with every thought that you think, live every hour of every day for him, be willing to sacrifice your life for him. Love him with every penny in your wallet and everything that you’ve got!”

AMEN!

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To explore this topic more, see chapter 3, “Loving God with Everything You’ve Got” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 42-54.

The Lord Alone

by Lois Tverberg

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” Mark 12:28-30

Jesus’ words that the most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart are very familiar to us. Many readers also know that Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 when he said this. By starting with the words “Hear O Israel…” he was beginning to say the Shema, a prayer of daily commitment to God that Jews have said since Jesus’ time up until today.

Hebrew Text

One thing that might strike us as odd is that Jesus quotes the first line of that prayer that reads, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” in the New International version and others. Why is that so important to declare that God is one?

In Hebrew, the word is echad, which can mean one. It can also mean together, alone, only or unified. Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity or the deity of Christ. Christian evangelists say in response that echad can mean a compound unity, as when Adam and Eve together were echad (Genesis 2:24). This discussion of the word echad hinges on the idea that Deuteronomy 6:4 is meant as a creedal statement about monotheism, and what kind of being God is.

Interestingly, the most authoritative Jewish text, the Tanakh by the Jewish Publication Society, says that the best reading of this phrase really is not “one,” but “alone.” So instead of reading this sentence as, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This changes the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship, him only shall we serve. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Western Christians are used to reciting statements of belief, so we can misunderstand this as saying that Jesus saw it as extremely critical that we believe in God’s “one-ness.” But when properly understood, it shows that the greatest commandment is not just the mental belief in monotheism, but is actually a call to entirely commit ourselves to the true God, him and him alone.


To explore this topic more, see chapter 2, “Shema: Living Out What You Hear” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 21-41.

Photo: Yaniv Ben-Arie

Truth Before and After Jesus

by Lois Tverberg

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40

Jesus’ words that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor are paralleled elsewhere among the rabbis. About 100 years after Jesus, Rabbi Akiva commented about “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 18:19) that “This is the great principle of the Torah.”1 Akiva could have heard it indirectly from Jesus, but in the book of Jubilees, from about 100 years before Jesus, it is commanded that we should “love each his neighbor, and to behave towards all men as one treats oneself” (Jub. 20:2).2 So here we also read the “love your neighbor” command along with the Golden Rule in a text that precedes Jesus’ words.

It can be challenging to faith to hear that some of Jesus’ most famous teachings are found in the culture both before and after him. We often imagine that the world was utterly black and devoid of sense before Jesus came to utter the great truths of God. In reality, we find that God had spent centuries training up a people to understand him, and in the final years before he came, he had prepared them especially to receive him.

Ark of the CovenantA few hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people returned to their land and rebuilt their temple after being exiled for 70 years. Knowing that the exile was punishment for disobedience, they bore an earnest desire to observe God’s laws and study the Scriptures like never before.

Some returnees settled in places far from the Temple, and gathered in a new thing called a “synagogue.” There, instead of sacrifices, they emphasized study and memorization of the Scriptures, so that people became deeply literate in the Bible, learning much of it by heart. Even in their homeland the Jews endured terrible persecution by the Greeks and Romans for their piety. Together these things made Jesus’ audience long for God to send someone to save them from their suffering, and search the Scriptures to find God’s promises for the Messiah.

It was then, I think, that the Spirit started speaking to people through the Scriptures, pointing out great truths of God like “love your neighbor as yourself.” These ideas began to emerge from Jesus’ people even before he arrived. God loves all humanity and wants all to be saved, and he gives everyone some sense of truth. But God was preparing the Jewish people to understand Jesus’ profound words like no other time and place. Although some didn’t recognize him as the Messiah, hearing his words in light of the thought of his time is often tremendously helpful.

Jesus and Disciples
People mistakenly believe that none of the Jews of Jesus’ time believed in him. To the contrary, Acts 21:20 reports that “tens of thousands believed” in Jerusalem alone, an area that was more hostile to Jesus than elsewhere. Some scholars estimate that between 10 – 30% of all Jews may have believed in Jesus.3 If this is true, it’s possible that Paul’s struggle with “the unbelief of the Jews” was not that none believed, but that not all of them believed.

Instead of being threatened by hearing that similar ideas to Jesus’ came both before and after him, we can be encouraged that God was giving people insights that would help them see the One who was standing before them.


1 Sifra 89b; a comment on Lev. 19:18. Sifra is a very early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus.

2 The book of Jubilees is from the apocrypha, non-canonical Jewish writings that date about 200 years before Jesus.

New Testament scholar David Bivin discusses the possibility that a sizable fraction of the Jewish population believed in Jesus at this link.

Photo: Vassil and Museum of Málaga

Nephesh – Soul, Life

by Lois Tverberg

One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul (nephesh), and with all your mind. – Matthew 22:35-37

The command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind & strength is the greatest commandment. It is part of the Shema, the “pledge of allegiance” that Jesus and all Jews since him have said morning and evening to commit themselves to follow the Lord. When we think about those words, we tend to pass by the phrase “heart and soul” quickly – probably thinking that it means that we should love God with our spirit and emotions, and very passionately.

Our understanding can be enriched by understanding the word nephesh, “soul,” better. Nephesh means life as well as soul. So the Jewish interpretation of “love the Lord with all of your soul” is actually that we should love God with all of our lives – every moment throughout our lives, even the point of sacrificing our lives for him. If Jews are able, they will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to their God.

In fact, there is a powerful story told to illustrate that idea. Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the first century AD, one of the most respected Jewish rabbis, was tortured to death publicly by the Romans. It was the time of saying the morning Shema, and during the torture, his students heard him reciting the Shema instead of crying out in pain. His students called out to him, “Teacher, even now?” The dying rabbi explained, “All my life I have wondered about the phrase that says ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your soul’, wondering if I would ever have the privilege of doing this. Now that the chance has come to me, shall I not grasp it with joy?” He repeated the first verse of Shema,”Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” until his soul left him.

This is what Jesus was calling us to, and what he did himself: loved the Lord (and us) with all of his life, until he breathed his last.