Jesus’ Rabbinic Teaching Style

We have lost sight of Jesus’ Jewish teaching methods over the centuries, as the church has moved from its Jewish beginnings to being almost entirely Gentile. This was partly from a desire to stress Jesus’ deity instead of his human context, and partly from an unfortunate desire to divorce Jesus from his Jewish background.

Several years ago, a group of Christian and Jewish scholars started studying Jesus from a different angle. They saw that the more they situated Jesus’ teachings into their Judaic context, the more they could make sense of texts that have made translators scratch their heads for centuries.

They were in agreement that while Jesus was a Jewish rabbi like many others, he did do miracles and claim to be Messiah. He even made statements that asserted his close association with God and unique authority to speak on his behalf. The more that this scholarly group studied Jesus’ use of Jewish teaching methods, the stronger his claims got! They have shown us that Jesus used many rabbinic teaching methods.

The Parable

Over a thousand parables are on record from other Jewish rabbis that bear many similarities in style and content to those of Jesus. (However, see 9/19/19 correction below.)

A parable was a way to explain a theological truth in terms of concrete images. Jesus’ Hebrew culture used physical images to express abstractions. For instance, “God’s outstretched arm” meant God’s power, and “to be stiff-necked” is to be stubborn, etc. The parable was an extension of the cultural habit of explaining truth in physical pictures. A parable usually had one main point that it was meant to explain, and some elements were common motifs in many parables.

For instance, a king was often the subject of the parable, and the king was almost always symbolic of God. Parables were the main way Jews communicated their theology of God. One rabbinic parable says,

When a sheep strays from the pasture, who seeks whom? Does the sheep seek the shepherd, or the shepherd seek the sheep? Obviously, the shepherd seeks the sheep. In the same way, the Holy One, blessed be He, looks for the lost.

We can hear the similarity between this parable and Jesus’ parable about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to look for the one lost sheep. Both parables may be from a common tradition of thinking of God as a shepherd, from Ezekiel 34, which likens God to a shepherd that looks for his lost sheep. It is interesting that even other rabbis assumed that God pursues the lost himself, and doesn’t stand at a distance while they find their way home.

Kal V’homer

Another method of teaching Jesus used was called Kal v’homer, meaning “light and heavy.” It was of teaching a larger truth by comparing it to a similar, but smaller situation. Often the phrase “how much more” would be part of the saying. Jesus used this when he taught about worry:

Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12:27-28)

We also see it in parables where he doesn’t necessarily use the phrase “how much more”:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. (Luke 18: 1-8)

Here we see an unjust judge finally grants justice to a widow who keeps bothering him. Jesus concludes, if an unjust judge will help a widow who keeps coming to him, how much more will God answer the prayers of those who keep praying! Parables often have a life application for the listener, and this one’s application is pray and not give up, as Luke explains.

Fencing the Torah

One of the things rabbis did were supposed to do, besides raise up many disciples, was to “build a fence around the Torah.” That meant to teach people how to observe God’s laws in the Torah by teaching them to stop before they get to the point of breaking one. Jesus did so in the Sermon on the Mount when he said,

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matt 5:21)

In this verse Jesus is making a fence around the command “Do not murder” by giving the stricter command, “Do not even remain angry at your brother.” He does the same with adultery by saying that a person should not even look lustfully at a woman either.

One rabbi said that “Sin starts out as weak as a spider-web, but then becomes as strong as an iron chain.” This is the point of the fencing — if you don’t want to fall to sin, it is best to avoid the temptation at the earliest point.

Alluding to the Scriptures

Another method Jesus used was alluding, or hinting to, his scriptures. He would use a distinctive word or phrase from a passage in the Old Testament as a way of alluding to all of it.

This was common in his time. In Medieval times this technique was called Remez. Even though Jesus wouldn’t have used that term, he often filled his sayings with references to the scriptures that would have been obvious to his biblically knowledgeable audience. For example, Jesus was probably alluding to a scene in 2 Chronicles 28:12-15 when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. He would have expected his audience to remember the earlier story in order to interpret the later story.

Sometimes, rabbinic teachers would hint to not just one scripture but two or more that shared a common word, and tie the two together in order to preach a message. Jesus did this when he said “My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it (my house) a den of thieves.” (Matt. 21:13) He is quoting both Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7 and tying them together, because they both contained the word beiti, my house.” He is contrasting God’s greatest vision for the temple — Isaiah 56:7 describes all the nations of the world worshiping there — with the worst possible abuse of it, which was being used as a refuge for thieves and murderers, as in Jeremiah 7:11.

Physical examples in teaching

Along with stories that used images to teach, rabbis would frequently use situations to go along with their teaching. We know that Jesus washed his disciples feet. Another distinguished rabbi, Gamaliel, once got up and served his disciples at a banquet. When they asked him why he did such a humble deed he said,

Is Rabbi Gamaliel a lowly servant? He serves like a household servant, but there is one greater than him who serves. Consider Abraham who served his visitors. But there is one even greater than Abraham who serves. Consider the Holy One, blessed be he, who provides food for all his creation!

Abraham was the most revered of all of their ancestors, and Gamaliel reminds them of when God and two angels came to his tent in Genesis 18, that he prepared a meal and served it to them. Then he hints that God himself serves when he gives us our food.

God himself is a model of serving others rather than wanting to be served. We can hear a little bit of a “Kal v’homer” saying, if one as great as God serves his lowly creation, certainly we can serve each other.

Jesus also uses visual lessons many times: for instance, when he called a child and had him stand there as he taught.

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” (Matt 18:2-5)

He uses the child as a concrete example to show the humility his followers must have, and the importance of not leading the innocent astray. Jesus may have used another example in this teaching as well: Capernaum was the center of production of millstones, and was right on the Sea of Galilee, and was where Jesus did much of his teaching. Jesus continues:

But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matt 18:6)

When Jesus said this, he may have had his hand on an 800-pound basalt millstone as he gestured to his neck, and then to the Sea of Galilee!

Conclusion  

Jesus used a method of teaching that is quite foreign to our culture, so it is easy to assume that his style was foreign to his first listeners too. We see instead that God was preparing a culture for his own coming, giving them a love for the scriptures and powerful techniques to teach the truth about him. Jesus used these methods to proclaim truth in an an uncommonly brilliant way. Certainly he was a master teacher.

 

Correction 9/19/19 – When this article was originally written in 2002, it stated that “Jesus didn’t invent this form of teaching, but was a master at using it for his purposes.” In fact, Jesus’ parables are some of the earliest recorded, and very sophisticated for their day. See The Parables of the Sages (Jerusalem, Carta, 2015) by Notley and Safrai. The assertion that Jesus simply reused stock parables and revised them for his purposes doesn’t seem convincing to me now. Rather, it looks more like Jesus was at the very forefront of this classically Jewish teaching genre.

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

Photos: James Tissot [Public domain], Serafima Lazarenko on Unsplash, duong chung on Unsplash

Did Jesus Hide His Message?

by Lois Tverberg

He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” Luke 8:10

Sometimes parables make us scratch our heads, and it can seem that Jesus was using them to deliberately confuse people. But even though they seem strange to us, they were a traditional teaching method that was always used to clarify rather than obscure. Many parables of Jesus’ that sound odd to us have very similar motifs than others of his time, and were probably less strange-sounding to his original listeners.

Still, we wonder why it sounds in the passage above like Jesus was deliberately trying to hide his message. A clue comes from the fact that Jesus seems to be alluding to Isaiah 6:9-10, when God commissioned Isaiah as a prophet to Israel. God did not send Isaiah to confuse the people with obscure teachings, but to clearly proclaim God’s word to them. But God says with great irony to Isaiah at his commission,

Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. Isaiah 6:10

Really, God is not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though God knows his teaching will be rejected by many. Jesus is saying the same thing – that like the prophets he speaks to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many will not hear or obey him.

Tree Knot

The idea that it is hard-heartedness that keeps people from understanding his teaching is supported by the context of this saying – it is in the middle of the parable of the four soils and its explanation. The parable of the soils seems to actually be the explanation of why Jesus’ words are not having an impact on people. It is not because the words are deliberately confusing, but because they are falling on deaf ears.

The parable shows that the same seed that grows well in good soil does not take root on the path, and produces little in rocky or thorny ground. The seed is always good, but the soil of human hearts may or may not be receptive. The reason people don’t understand Jesus’ teachings is not because he is hiding anything, but is a problem with the hearer. The difficulty is in their ability to receive his teaching in order to obey it.


Photo: Chitrapa

The Other Lost Son

by Lois Tverberg

“Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.” (Luke 15:29-30)

In this parable, we focus almost all of our attention on the prodigal son. But according to Brad Young, the parable really should be named, “The Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons.” (1) Dr. Young points out that neither son understands their father’s love, and neither has any love in his heart for the other. Both sons see their father as a paymaster, a source of blessing and gain. The younger son first sees his father as a source of cash that he could spend by claiming his inheritance, and then he sees him as an employer who might take him in. The older son has a similar attitude – he expects his father to give him some reward for his loyalty to the family, and doesn’t care about his brother who has come home.

In this parable we can see all types of relationships toward God. We certainly see the person who has rejected God in the prodigal son. Indeed, by asking for his inheritance, in this culture he would have been saying that he wished his father was dead, because he just wanted to live life enjoying the wealth he had gained apart from his family. In a similar way, many people show that they “wish God were dead” by their desire to ignore him and just enjoy all the material blessings he has showered on us, living life just to satisfy their desires.
Prodigal SonWe often don’t consider that the older son is a picture of a broken relationship too, who even though outwardly he is part of the family, he really sees the father only as a source of reward. He is a person who may be quite religious, but misunderstands God’s enormous love. Rather than valuing an intimate, trusting relationship with God, his feeling is that he must somehow earn God’s favor, and doesn’t see that he is loved in spite of all of observance and good works.

The true hero of the parable is the father who displays amazing love to his very broken family. If only we would love him with the limitless love he has for us!


(1) “The Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons” in Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad Young, Hendrickson 1995, p 143 – 154.

Photo: 7AEgfhxf52pz-Q at Google Cultural Institute

A Gift That Grows

by Lois Tverberg

“…And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” – Mark 4:18-19

Growing flower

One year for Christmas I bought two gift boxes of potted bulbs that would bloom as a beautiful bouquet in the middle of winter, if the growing directions were followed. I kept one for myself, and I wrapped the other up and gave to some ladies at my workplace. When they unwrapped their box they “oohed” over the beautiful flowers in the picture on the box, thanked me appreciatively and set it aside. I set my own box aside for a week, and then discovered that the bulbs had sent up stems, and had been growing inside the box on their own with no light or water.

The next time I saw the ladies I saw that their box hadn’t been opened, so I told them that the bulbs were growing already. But it fell on deaf ears, and their box sat unopened in clear view of everyone for some weeks beyond that. I can only imagine that when they opened it, they were saddened to find stems that had grown, gotten yellow and never bloomed because they were not cared for.

What hit me is that this was a little like Jesus’ parable about the seed that was sown on various types of soil. In Jesus’ parable he speaks about people for whom wealth and daily cares act to choke the seed of the Word in their lives, making it unfruitful. In a related way, many of us are excited to get the “gift of salvation” and like to look at the picture on the box, but we don’t open the box and do the work of prayer, discipleship and study. We would rather be busy with our own daily activities and just be glad we are saved.

But God desires more than to give us a box with a lovely picture on it. He gave us a living gift, just like the bulbs in the box! Just like them, the gift of the Holy Spirit is alive in us too, but only can grow in us as much as we let it. How sad if the beautiful bouquet that the Lord had intended to grow from our lives would remain stifled and yellow inside of us. We need to become true disciples so we can bloom in the way he intended.


Photo: stux

A Good Day’s Pay

by Lois Tverberg

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard… When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius…When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, `These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he said, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? `So the last shall be first, and the first last.” – Matthew 20:1, 9-13, 16

Jesus often used parables to describe the character of God. He did not try to define or categorize him with theological abstractions, but he did paint a picture of God’s personality with colorful stories that grab our attention and sometimes surprise us.

Field Workers

This story is one example of Jesus’ way of showing God’s grace to his audiences. His picture is that of a farmer at harvest time when the grape crop is ripe and needs to be brought in. There was probably some urgency to get the crop in before the fruit spoiled or the weather changed, so that the farmer would keep hiring workers to have as much help as possible. While this may be the case, the reason that he hired the last workers was that they had not found work for the day, so that they would have nothing to bring home to their families. Day workers usually had only sporadic work and lived in poverty. Giving the last workers a full-day’s pay demonstrated his great compassion for them and desire to supply their needs.

The problem comes from the workers who began work at the beginning of the day. He had shown them the same grace by employing them as day-workers too, and they would have known the desperate needs of the other laborers. But instead of appreciating the owner’s compassion, they expected him to shower them with even greater gifts. If the man is generous, certainly he must be rich too, they assumed. His compassion made them greedy for more.

The lesson we should learn is that God is not a paymaster, and we shouldn’t serve him with the expectation of being entitled to his favor. God is just as likely to answer the prayers and bless those who have not “earned it.” And most of all, we should be careful to not resent the “latecomers” – those who may have lived terrible lives and only repent at the very end. By God’s mercy he gives grace to us all, and does not repay us according to what we deserve.


Photo: Vincent Van Gogh at Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

A Little Leaven

by Lois Tverberg

“To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was all leavened.” Luke 13:20 – 21

In this very short parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to leaven in a favorable way, describing how a very small beginning point can increase invisibly until it has had a powerful impact on the whole thing.

bread in ovenIt is interesting that he uses “leaven” in a positive way, when it is uniformly used negatively throughout the Bible. This may be because of how leavening was done in biblical times. To make bread dough rise, a lump of old, fermented dough from the day before would be mixed into the new lump of dough. This deliberate contamination was what caused the bread to rise. Outside of this parable, the image is always negative.

Jesus inserts the detail that the kingdom is like “leaven, which a woman took and hid three seahs of flour.” A seah is a measure of about 6 liters, so three seahs would be 18 liters – almost 5 gallons in volume. This would be a large amount of flour, enough to make quite a feast. A small lump of leavened dough would have quite a powerful effect to be able to leaven all of that dough.

Interestingly, when Jesus speaks of the woman using three seahs of flower, He appears to be alluding to Genesis 18:6:

Sarah and bread“Abraham said to Sarah, ‘get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

The reference to “three seahs of flour” is unique to that particular story in the Old Testament about when God and his angels visiting Abraham and Sarah.

Jesus is most likely alluding to Sarah, who baked leavened bread and served it to these honored guests! By highlighting this unique detail, Jesus’ audience would have instantly remembered the well-known story about God coming to visit Abraham, the greatest hero of the Jewish people.

It appears that Jesus is using a rabbinic technique to “redeem” leaven in this case, hinting that Sarah used it in a good way when making a large batch of bread for their holy visitors. Probably no modern-day pastor would use such a subtle reference, but that technique is common in rabbinic teachings. References to Abraham and Sarah, some of the greatest heroes, were especially common.

Even though leaven is normally used negatively to describe contamination, as hypocrisy had infiltrated the Pharisees, we see here that Jesus is saying that it can have a positive side too. It shows us that God has the power to “contaminate” our evil world as leaven affects the whole loaf. He can stand back and watch as the tiniest numbers of people, can by his power, spread this “contamination” throughout the whole world.


Photo: Chmee2

The Mustard Seed

by Lois Tverberg

Mustard Seed“What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.” Luke 13:18-19

The parable of the mustard seed is difficult to understand. What was Jesus’ point, and why did he tell it? What was it saying about God’s redemption through Jesus?

We can get a clue from seeing that it is told along side another parable – the parable of the yeast that works its way through the whole loaf of bread. Often Jesus told parables in pairs, and both stories would have the same main point. So, by comparing parables, we can see their common, important themes.

Both parables emphasize the hiddenness or invisibility at first, but then the powerful effect later on. They are both an answer to the question that Jesus was asked at one point by the Pharisees:

Luke 17:20 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, `Here it is,’ or `There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

Those who questioned him were waiting for God to break into history to destroy all the wicked in one large battle, and they assumed that the Messiah would lead the war. In essence they are asking, “If you are the king, where is the battle? Why aren’t you out shedding blood? Where is your glory?”

Tree of lifeJesus answers with this parable to tell them that he is a different kind of king than they expected. Instead of coming now to destroy the wicked, he has come to begin a kingdom by his own death and atonement. He has come to show mercy toward any who would allow him to be their King and Lord. This kingdom would consist of those who would let God’s reign be established over their hearts, one at a time.

God’s power, manifested in a believer’s life, is invisible at first, but has a powerful effect as it grows deeper in their lives. And, the group of people among whom God’s reign has been established, moves outward in h his power to expand his redemptive reign. In the end, God’s kingdom is like the tree in Ezekiel 31:6, that is a mighty, powerful, and unstoppable. Then, Jesus’ reign will be fully established, and he will be the seen as the glorious king that His people had been waiting for all along.


Photo: Quinn Dombrowski

How Much More…

by Lois Tverberg

LiliesConsider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith! Luke 12:27-28

Jesus uses parables to explain difficult theological ideas with stories of everyday things. One of the methods he uses is a technique called kal v’homer, meaning “light and heavy.” It was of teaching a larger truth by comparing it to a similar, but smaller situation. Often the phrase “how much more” would be part of the saying.

Jesus used this when he taught about worry, in today’s passage above. We also see it in parables where he doesn’t necessarily use the phrase “how much more”:

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Luke 18: 1 – 8)

Widow and OrphansHere we see an unjust judge finally grants justice to a widow who keeps bothering him. Jesus concludes that if an unjust judge will help a widow who keeps coming to him, how much more will God answer the prayers of those who keep praying! Jesus tells another story of a man who goes to his neighbor asking for bread to feed some unexpected guests. He says, even if the neighbor would not give him bread because he is a friend, he will do it because of the man’s obnoxious persistence.

If we understand that Jesus is deliberately contrasting these people who are very unlike God, we see how much greater he is! God is not a callous judge – he cares deeply for the widow and orphan. God is not a sleepy neighbor, he knows our every need, and wants our good at all time. If even the very least godly people will act to help us when pressed, how great will God’s answers be to the persistent prayers that we bring to him!


Photo: www.tOrange.us and Pessimist2006

Coming Home Again

by Lois Tverberg

“The father said to his slaves, `Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'” – Luke 15:22-24

We as Western Christians often describe salvation as a transaction – that we have sinned by breaking God’s rules, and if we trust in Jesus, he will pay the penalty for our sin to allow us to escape punishment for sin when we die.

Prodigal SonThrough the parable of the Prodigal Son, we get a more Eastern picture of sin – as that of a broken relationship. The prodigal son who asked for his inheritance early was making a powerful statement of rejection of his family. In Eastern cultures, to make that request was to imply a wish that the father was already dead. It would have been profoundly hurtful to the family as the son sold the family’s property for his own gain.1 It shows us a picture of the great personal offense we cause God as we reject him as our father. Sin does not just “break the rules,” it is a direct rejection of the God who is our loving parent, who cares for us deeply.

When we walk away from God, like the prodigal son, we live each day of our lives separated from God, alienated from our true family because of our sin. As Paul says,

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. (Colossians 1:21)

Sometimes we portray God as an impersonal judge, and even fear him as an angry policeman who is only out to punish sin. But Jesus says through this parable that God is a caring father eager to see his children come home, both in this life and in eternity. He is eager to have us in relationship with him, back in his family once again. This picture is not just that of a God who will impersonally judge us when we die, but that of a loving father who actively wants to bring his lost children back into relationship with him, now and forevermore.


(1) The Poet and the Peasant, Kenneth Bailey, Eerdmans, 1983.

Photo: 5QFIEhic3owZ-A at Google Cultural Institute

The Merciful Farmer

by Lois Tverberg

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also…The slaves said to him, `Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ “But he said, `No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them.'” – Matthew 13:24-26, 29

Wheat When we read the parable of the wheat and the tares, it’s difficult to see Jesus’ reason for telling it. It is about the “kingdom of heaven,” which is the idea that God would establish his reign over the whole world when all peoples of the world would abandon their idols and worship only him. The picture that many had was that God’s judgment would come to wipe out all idolatry, a logical answer to the problem of evil. In one sudden event, God would assert his power and vanquish his enemies, the “wicked” nations around them, and those of their own nation who were “sinners.”

John the Baptist also shared this picture, and John warns that because Christ had arrived, judgment was right around the corner. He says that Christ had come to destroy the chaff and weeds, and that the harvest was at hand:

“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 3:17).

Winnowing ForkJesus uses the parable of the wheat and tares to explain that God’s kingdom on earth was different than John expected – that this was not the time for God to destroy the wicked, but that he would allow his kingdom to grow in the midst of them. God’s mercy is displayed in that he does not destroy the tares among the wheat. Rather, the wheat would grow in the midst of the tares, so that there was still hope for the enemies if they chose to repent and enter. God would establish his kingdom, not by judgment, but by mercy to sinners, who would be reconciled with God through Jesus’ atoning death. Judgment would be delayed, and mercy extended to everyone who would enthrone God as their king.

Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of God gives us a powerful description of God’s character. It shows that God is, at his very heart, merciful and wanting no one to perish. Our response must be to examine ourselves, realize that no one is righteous, and repent and receive God as our King.


Photo: National Plant Germplasm System and Deror avi