Hearing Jesus’ “Hidden” Messages

Jesus often uses phrases or even single words to allude to teachings in the Old Testament. He could do this because he lived in a biblically knowledgeable Jewish culture. People were familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, because they lived in an oral culture in which people learned the text largely by heart.

Jesus’ culture also had the habit of public discussion about the Bible. Traveling rabbis would teach in each village, and the town’s conversation would revolve around Scripture and the latest teaching. As odd as it sounds to us, many cultures throughout world history have put religion in the center of public culture, so that people are widely literate about religious matters. It has only been in the twentieth century that many societies have become publicly secular, and people ignorant about faith issues.

So Jesus, like others, had a sophisticated teaching style that expected his audience to be familiar enough with the scriptures that they knew the references he was making. By knowing the reference, people would know the entire context and hear more complex ideas behind his words. He wasn’t hiding secret messages — actually, he expected people to catch his allusions. In medieval times, the Jews referred to this technique of hinting as “Remez,” but the practice predated Jesus.

We actually do the same thing today. When a headline says “War in Afghanistan May Be Another Vietnam,” it is assuming that everyone knows the history of the Vietnam War. Without saying anything but the word “Vietnam,” people immediately know the reference and have an emotional reaction to that difficult time in US history.

Or, when we refer to a government scandal as “Travel-gate” or “File-gate” we are subtly alluding to the Watergate scandal. Just by adding that half word, we hint that the issue is a major White House scandal that will cast a shadow over the presidency. Even in the last sentence, you need to know which white house I am talking about! These allusions are a way of quickly referring to common cultural knowledge.

We can find many, many of these in the gospels. Here’s one passage from Mark where Jesus uses this technique:

He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations‘? But you have made it a robber’s den.” (Mark 11:15 -17)

Jesus is using two quotes from the Old Testament prophets about the Temple. One is “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” which comes out of a text from Isaiah 56:

Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD,
To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Sabbath
And holds fast My covenant;
Even those I will bring to My holy mountain
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar;
For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations. (Is. 56:6-7) 

The other comes from Jeremiah 7:

Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations? “Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the LORD. “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. (Jer. 7:9-12) 

Both of the passages share a common subject — God’s “house,” the Temple — in fact, in some ancient texts, both passage use the exact phrase “my house.”

Rabbis would look for an exact word match in order to link two texts together. This technique was called gezerah sheva. Another example is with the two texts “You shall love the Lord with all of your heart…”(Deut. 6:5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). When they are quoted together it is because the word “Ve’ahavta” (You shall love) is in common between them. Rabbis would assume that one passage would shed light on the other, or would combine the two to teach a new thing.

So what is Jesus saying about the Temple in the passage in Mark? If we just read the surface meaning, Jesus says that the Temple is supposed to be a place where people pray, not a place where people do business, and maybe unscrupulously too. The Isaiah passage, however, describes God’s greatest goal for the temple: that it would be a place of worship not just for Jews but for all the nations of the world.

The Jeremiah passage describes the worst possible abuse, where people are being openly wicked, and then fleeing to the temple because they figure God would protect it from destruction. It says that he let the temple be destroyed at Shiloh, and then threatens God would do it again if they didn’t repent.

Some think Jesus was particularly angry that the sellers were crowding the Gentiles out of the court of the Gentiles, the area of the Temple where foreigners could worship the true God.

However, the message may be even stronger than that. It is known from Josephus and other ancient historians that the Jewish temple authorities were deeply corrupt in Jesus’ time. They profited from the sale of sacrificial animals, extorted pay from the other priests, and had people who opposed them killed. Several of Jesus’ sayings were about the destruction of the Temple because of its corruption, and in Mark 14 we read his prediction that the Temple would be destroyed.

Jesus is very likely using Jeremiah 7 to hint that the selling in the Temple is only one symptom of great corruption that would ultimately lead to God’s judgement. “Den of robbers” doesn’t just refer to the sellers, it refers to the wicked temple authorities.

Since we know that we put cultural “hints” in our own conversation, we should expect that Jesus would in his words too. Certainly by learning more about his first century culture we can understand Jesus better.

We should take joy to see that the source of Jesus’ “hints” is something that we already have at our fingertips — the Old Testament. This should challenge all of us to learn the Scriptures he read, if we want to understand Jesus and follow him.


SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 3, “Stringing Pearls” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 36-50.

A major reference for this article is “Remember Shiloh,” by Joseph Frankovic.

Photos: James Tissot [Public domain], Berthold Werner [Public domain]

Builder of the House

by Lois Tverberg

“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. ” 1 Chronicles 17:11-14

The Messiah was to be a son of David who would be a great king, and would have a kingdom without end. It was partially fulfilled by Solomon, the son of David, but ultimately fulfilled by Jesus, the Son of David. The messianic promise to David said another key thing: that this Son of David would build a house for the Lord. Building the Temple was the high point of Solomon’s reign, and for Jesus, this is one of the most important pictures of what His mission on earth accomplished.

Hammer and WoodJesus often in his ministry talks about the temple, and he makes the key statement that “I will destroy this temple (house) made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.’” (Mark 14:58). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection he was bringing together a “house” of a family of believers who would become that place where God’s Spirit dwells.

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

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

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

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

Photo: KOREphotos