Acts of Loving Kindness at Christmas

by Lois Tverberg

Many of us struggle with Christmas. It doesn’t really feel right to hunt for yet another expensive toy to give to already spoiled kids (or adults) on our list. Some have decided not to celebrate the holiday at all, because of the non-biblical traditions that are a part of it. Yet God redeemed us Gentiles from our pagan roots, and his gracious policy over the ages has been to transform rather than to cast aside.1 Instead of throwing out Christmas, perhaps we should ask how we can make our celebrations of the coming of our Messiah truly reflective of his love.

How can we bring more glory to Messiah Jesus at this time of year? Jesus’ Jewish culture asked a related question from the following verse:

The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:2)

From this line, rabbinic thinkers saw the words “I will exalt him,” and asked the question, “How can mere mortals hope to exalt God, the Creator of the entire universe?” In the same way we could ask, how can we bring more glory to someone as infinitely wonderful as God’s own son, the Christ?

Beautifying His Commands

The rabbis had a wonderful answer. They said humans can bring more glory to God, who had all the glory in the heavens, by doing his will on earth in the absolute best and beautiful way possible. They called this hiddur mitzvah, meaning to beautify God’s commands. In the same way, we can do what Jesus commands in the absolute best way possible.

Christians may be surprised that the word mitzvah, meaning “command” or “commandment,” is positive rather than negative in Jewish culture. The word is found in many verses, like the following: “Keep my commands (mitzvot, pl.) and follow them. I am the LORD” (Lev. 22:31).

We tend to assume it refers to burdensome regulations, but the usual Jewish usage of mitzvah is that it is an opportunity to do something good God told you to do. People say things like, “I had a chance to do a mitzvah today when the elderly woman asked for my help.” The word is always used in a positive way, suggesting that doing what God has asked is a joy and a spiritual opportunity, not a burden.2

The idea of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the command) goes even beyond this — that if God tells us to do something, we shouldn’t just do the minimum, but to perform it in the best way possible, sparing no expense or trouble. When one poor Jewish man was asked why he spent $50 for a citron, a lemon-like fruit required for the Feast of Sukkot, he replied, “Why would we worship God with anything less than the very best?” Using our resources sacrificially to do God’s will is a way of showing great love for God.

We can also see Jesus describing this behavior of hiddur mitzvah, going far beyond the minimum, in his story about the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan man obeyed God’s command to love his neighbor by personally caring for the wounded traveler, carrying him to the inn on his own donkey, and investing a large sum of his own money to care for him. As a Samaritan in Israel he even risked his own life, because as an enemy of the Jews, he could have been accused of being the attacker (Luke 10:33-35).

Good Works?

Christians from some traditions may worry about doing “works” — good things for others — thinking that it is a way of denying that we are saved by grace. It’s very important to remember that we are redeemed by faith in Christ, not because we’ve earned it. We can learn the correct attitude from Paul’s statement about works:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:8-10)

Paul says that salvation does not come from earning it through works, but it is a free gift from God through faith in the one he has sent. Surprisingly, though, the very next thing he says is that doing good works is the very purpose for which we were created! It is not that obeying God is the way we earn his love; rather it is that God, out of love, created us to serve him this way in the first place. Paul says something very similar to the rabbis:

For three things the world is sustained: For the study of scriptures (torah), for worshipping and serving God (avodah), and for deeds of lovingkindness (gemilut hesed).3

What this means is that for three great reasons God created humanity and allows the world to even keep existing: for humans to discover God’s great love through his Word; to worship him and want to serve him because of it; and then to show God’s love to those around us. Paul also says that we were created for this purpose, to bring God glory by doing loving acts that he even planned ahead of time. All of this comes back to the first question: how can humans increase God’s (and therefore Christ’s) glory? By glorifying God by reflecting his love.

Gemilut Hesed

One of the most beautiful concepts from Jesus’ culture is that of gemilut hesed (gem-i-LOOT HES-ed), acts of lovingkindness. In Jesus’ time, attention was given to giving money to the poor, and Jesus himself emphasized it.

As good as it was to give to the poor, gemilut hesed was considered even better. It is easy to hand a $10 bill to a poor man to give him money for a meal, but to invite him into your home and share a meal shows God’s love, and causes you to grow in love as well. Because of this, some Jews make a point to use some of their “giving dollars” to do gemilut hesed with their own hands.4 I know of a woman in Jerusalem who loved to read, so she invested in a library of books and then regularly found ways of loaning or even giving them to others. Certainly a Christian could do even more by buying and sharing good devotional books or Bible studies with others.

Considering how much money we spend on entertainment from movies, cable TV, etc, wouldn’t a wonderful Christian alternative be to “entertain” ourselves with gemilut hesed? To make a “hobby” out of a particular form of kindness to others? One Christian couple I know invested in a truck to use during snowstorms, to go up and down their country road pulling people out who had slid off the road. Another friend makes a habit of stopping to help or offer a cell phone to anyone stranded with road trouble. Yet another woman, who teaches classes on job hunting, enjoys helping friends find jobs if they need one or want one that suits them better.

What about making a practice of being kind to waitresses and tipping them generously? Or inviting single or elderly people home for Sunday dinner after church? As well as, of course, to share your faith in Christ? All these kind acts have the effect of showing God’s love to others in small and great ways. They likely will have an even bigger impact on ourselves and our families, as we see God’s love transform our hearts in the process.

During Christmas time, we celebrate God’s loving act of gemilut chesed, of coming to dwell among his people on earth. He went far beyond the minimum to display his love by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and showing mercy to the leper and outcast, and finally by dying to save his people from their sins. What better way to celebrate his coming than to spare no expense to obey his commands in the best possible way, in order to show his tremendous love to the world.

~~~~

1 For some thoughts on what God might think about using pagan traditions like Christmas trees to worship him, see “Of Standing Stones and Christmas Trees.”

2 For an example of the positive Jewish attitude toward God’s commands (mitzvot), see “Mastering One Mitzvah,” from aish.com

3 Verse 1:2 of Pirke Avot, (Sayings of the Fathers), a collection of rabbinic sayings written about 200 AD in the Mishnah. Many of these saying were attributed to rabbis who lived in Jesus’ time and even before, and many relate to things Jesus said as well. This saying is attributed to Simon the Righteous, who was said to live at the time of Ezra.

4 For many wonderful stories of the practice of Gemilut Hesed, see the outstanding book, The Book of Jewish Values, by Joseph Telushkin, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York

Photos: freestocks.org on Unsplash, Tom Parsons on Unsplash, Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Aleinu: The Prayer for God’s Kingdom

by Lois Tverberg

The main theme of Jesus’ ministry was to preach about the coming of the Kingdom of God, but it is a source of confusion and misunderstanding to many Christians. Is it in heaven after we die? Isn’t God king already?

One thing widely misunderstood is how Jesus spoke about the coming of God’s kingdom in order to proclaim himself as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed king. The primary task of the Messiah, after all, was to establish God’s reign on earth. Dozens of articles are available on this page about Jesus’ Jewish Messianic claims.1

What would the coming of this kingdom look like? An ancient Jewish prayer named Aleinu (Ah-LAY-nu) can shed light on this question. Scholarly sources believe that this beautiful prayer predates Jesus, so that he himself would have prayed it. The name, Aleinu, means, literally, “it is upon us,” which means “we must” or “it is our duty to.”

Even today this prayer is recited at the conclusion of every synagogue service. It is especially prominent on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, when it is traditional to focus on God’s kingship over the world.

Through the prayer the worshiper exalts God as his or her king, and prays that all the world will repent and do the same. (Note that in the third section, the word for “rule,” malchut, is the same word for kingdom.)

 

Aleinu

It is our duty to praise the Lord of all.
To acclaim the greatness of the God of creation,
Who has not made us as the nations of the world,
Nor set us up as other peoples of the earth,
Not making our portions as theirs,
Nor our destiny as that of their multitudes.2

3For we kneel and bow low before the supreme King of Kings,
The Holy One, blessed be He,
Acknowledging that He has stretched forth the heavens
And laid the foundations of the earth.
His glorious abode is in the heavens above,
The domain of His might in exalted heights.
He is our God, there is no other,
In truth our King, there is none else.
Even thus is it written in His Torah:
“This day know and lay it to your heart,
That the Lord is God in the heavens above and on the earth below.
There is none else.”

We therefore hope in Thee, Lord our God,
Soon to behold the glory of Thy might
When the world shall be established under the rule of the Almighty,
And all mankind shall invoke Thy glorious name.
May they all accept the rule of Thy dominion,
And speedily do Thou rule over them forever more.4

Here is an excerpt of the last section from another translation that is older and more literal, that talks about the “Yoke of God’s Kingdom.”

“Therefore do we wait for Thee, O Lord our God, soon to behold Thy mighty glory, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth, and idols shalt be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh invoke Thy name; when all the wicked of the earth shall be turned unto Thee. Then shall all the inhabitants of the world perceive and confess that unto Thee every knee must bend, and every tongue be sworn. Before Thee, O Lord our God, shall they kneel and fall down, and unto Thy glorious name give honor. So will they accept the yoke of Thy kingdom, and Thou shall be King over them speedily forever and aye. For Thine is the kingdom, and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah: ‘The Lord shall reign forever and aye.’ And it is also said: ‘And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.'”

 

Christians should be fascinated by how this prayer describes the Kingdom of God being established on the earth, and how it desires that all the nations repent and worship the true God of heaven. It seems to be very much related to Jesus’ words about “the coming of the kingdom of God” and Paul’s sermon in Philippians:

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)

~~~~

SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

1 See also, “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!” and “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy

2 In some versions there is a line that says, “for they prostrate themselves before vanity and folly, and pray to a god who can not help.” Ironically, Christians protested since they saw it as said against them, and persecuted Jews for praying this prayer. In many prayer books it has been removed.

3 It is customary to stand for the prayer, and bow while saying this line.

4 From the Siddur, The Traditional Prayerbook for Sabbath and Festivals
Behrman House, 1960

For more information about this prayer see the following:

Alenu,” a Jewish Enclyclopedia article
This site devoted to the Aleinu

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

God’s Illogical Logic of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

Many of us have seen the movie Narnia or read the classic book, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This classic tale contains obvious parallels to the story of Christ. At the climax, the White Witch demands the life of the boy Edmund because he is a traitor to his family. She says that the “deep magic” allows her to kill every traitor — his life is forfeit for his sin.

Aslan, the Lion who represents Christ, gives his life in the boy’s place but later rises from the dead. When asked why, he said, “…there is a magic deeper still which [the White Witch] did not know … that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [of judgment] would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”1

This “deeper magic” of Narnia — the idea that the sins of one person can be forgiven because of another person’s sacrifice — is a fundamental part of the Christian understanding of substitutionary atonement. We take it for granted that mercy is shown to the guilty for the sake of an innocent person.

If you think about it, this is quite illogical. In our own relationships we generally don’t transfer our feelings from one person to another. We don’t say “thank you” to one person because someone else did us a favor. Somehow, however, we have gotten used to the idea that God will forgive many sinners because of the righteousness of just one person.

Does the idea of granting mercy for the sake of another have precedent in the Hebrew scriptures? One might think it was invented in the New Testament. But interestingly, according to Jewish scholars, the answer is yes. Many have found this merciful “divine illogic” throughout the Old Testament and consider it an important principle of Judaism!

Jewish scholars explore the most minute details of the Torah and Hebrew scriptures, often picking up subtle themes that Christians might miss. So it is fascinating to see all the motifs that they find even though they may not be looking for Jesus.

Mercy for the Sake of Another

The Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna sees this pattern as early as Genesis 19, when Lot was saved from the destruction of Sodom. Lot had chosen to move to Sodom knowing that it was sinful. He became active in city leadership and even allowed his daughters to intermarry with the population.

Even though Lot wasn’t as corrupt as the Sodomites, God did not save him because of his own righteousness. Rather, the Bible says that “God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen 19:29). God delivered Lot from the catastrophe for the sake of Abraham — as a response to Abraham’s faithfulness, not Lot’s.

According to Sarna, “This ‘doctrine of merit’ is a not an infrequent theme in the Bible and constitutes many such incidents in which the righteousness of chosen individuals may sustain other individuals or even an entire group through its protective power.”2

This is the first of many times when God pardons one for the sake of another. For some strange reason, God often made his forgiveness contingent on an intercessor’s prayer. For instance, when King Abimelech took Abraham’s wife Sarah captive, God told him that he was under judgment, but if Abraham prayed for him, he would live (Gen. 20:7). At one point, God even lamented that no one can be found to “stand in the gap” for his people, as if he will not act without an intercessor (Ezekiel 22:30).3

Similarly, at the end of the story of Job, God was furious with Job’s counselors and said to them, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. … My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly” (Job 42:7-8).

God’s forgiveness seems to await the request from Job, the innocent victim of their sin. Moreover, the fact that God calls him “my servant” is a compliment that was rarely used except for those whom God highly esteemed.4 Was God saying that in accepting his prayer, he will pardon them for Job’s sake, rather than their own?

The Merit of the Fathers

A related idea in Judaism is that God will show special mercy toward the people of Israel because of the merits of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.5 They see this as coming from God’s promises of blessing to the patriarchs, and because he told Moses that he would pardon to the thousandth generation those who love him (Ex. 34:6-7).

So when Moses appealed to God to forgive Israel in the wilderness, he reminded him of his promise to his ancestors (Ex. 32:13, Deut. 9:27). In Micah 7 and elsewhere, God’s mercy is linked to his pledge to the patriarchs:

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago. (Micah 7:18-20)

Even Paul alluded to this idea in Romans 11:28: “… but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” John the Baptist, however, told his audience to repent and to not assume that the merit of their ancestors would be sufficient to pay for their sin: “Do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matt 3:9).6

Because of this idea, when Jews pray for forgiveness for their sins on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, they focus on reminding God of the faithfulness of their ancestors, focusing especially on the story of the “Akedah,” when Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac at God’s request.

It is ironic that they ask for forgiveness for the sake of Abraham, who was a father who had such great love for God that he was willing to sacrifice his own son. Even more ironic is the fact that they also ask for mercy for the sake of Isaac, who offered himself up as a willing sacrifice and was obedient to do his fathers will! (The rabbis noted that if Isaac was carrying enough wood to burn a sacrifice, he had to be a grown man and able to overpower his elderly father. They saw his willingness to be a sacrifice as the major point of the story.)

While these practices are not explicitly pointing toward Christ, they do show that the Jewish reading of the Hebrew Bible supports the idea that a sinner can seek forgiveness from God because of the righteous merits of another person.

Atonement for Unintentional Murder

Another interesting place Jewish sources have found themes that Christians would see as pointing to Christ is in the regulations involving cities of refuge. Those cities were to be places where people guilty of accidental manslaughter could flee to escape revenge by the offended family (Numbers 35:9-15, 22-28).

Guilty individuals were required to live in the city until the death of the High Priest, at which time they were free to go home. The rabbis had a fascinating interpretation of the logic behind this:

The priests atone for unintentional sins through the offering of sacrifices, the high priest atones for even more, this being the reason for his functions on Yom Kippur, and the death of the high priest is the highest form of atonement which atones for unintentional manslaughter, the severest of unintentional sins. 7 (emphasis mine)

Remarkably, in the subtle logic of Torah regulations that Christians tend not to read, we see a picture of Christ as our great High Priest who obtained forgiveness for our sins through his own death.

Seeing the Merciful Illogic of Christ’s Atonement

Jesus’ first followers were well acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretation. They certainly knew Isaiah 53, that spoke of one who would “bear the sin of many, and make intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53:12). They did not invent the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice would atone for the sins of those who believed in him; rather, they could see that it was woven throughout their Scriptures from beginning to end.

~~~~

1 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis (New York, MacMillan, 1950)

2 See Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), p. 150-151.

3 Ibid.

4 JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, by Nahum Sarna p. 187.

5 S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, pp. 170 – 198. Also, see “Virtue, Original,” by Joseph Jacobs

6 Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, by G.F. Moore, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1927), pp. 535-545.

7 Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), as quoted (without a source) in “Parashat Matot-Masei” by Zvi Shimon, Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash 

Photos: Chris Bair on UnsplashBenjamin West [Public domain], the Providence Lithograph Company [Public domain]

Jesus, the True Lamb of Passover

by Lois Tverberg 

The most important week of the year for Christians is Holy Week, when we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection as the lamb that was sacrificed for our sins. Throughout the year we remind ourselves of Jesus’ atonement when we hold up the bread and wine from the Last Supper and think about Jesus’ body that was broken, and his blood that was shed for us.

Some may wonder why we speak of Jesus as the “lamb” or why he talks about bread as his “body” or of a “new covenant” in his “blood.” The key to unlocking many of these important themes is to realize that they are all aspects of the ancient feast of Passover, which was being fulfilled in a powerful new way that year in Christ.

Passover

Passover was the first and most important of the seven feasts that God commanded his people to celebrate. It was a time of great joy, a commemoration of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt that marked the beginning of their nation and defined them as God’s people. Christians may not realize that Jews still consider the exodus God’s greatest act of salvation in the Scriptures. It was at this time of thanking God for his redemption that Jesus completed his much greater act of saving his people for all eternity.

Up until the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the central feast of Passover was a lamb which each family sacrificed and ate as part of a sacred meal. In Exodus, the blood of the lamb was daubed on the doorposts of the houses of Israel, to mark them as protected from judgment on Egypt during the plague against the firstborn sons of Egypt.

Interestingly, Jesus, God’s firstborn, was arrested and condemned the night after the Passover meal, just as the firstborn sons of Egypt long ago. His blood protected us, and he himself took on the condemnation which was upon us as it was on the Egyptians.

The Passover lamb was significant in that it was an offering eaten by the worshippers. The fact that the people were allowed to eat the sacrifice signified that it was part of a covenantal meal between them and God.

All Israelites were required to participate. If a person was unable to, he needed to celebrate one month later (Numbers 9:9-13). Throughout the history of Israel, Passover celebrations often signified Israel’s national recommitment to their covenant with God. Now we can see why Jesus uses this time to speak of a “new covenant” — a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:31-34, when God said he would make a new covenant to forgive his people’s sins and give them a new heart to love him.

Passover was also the first night of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. All leavened food had to be removed from homes to commemorate the exit of the Israelites from Egypt before their bread could rise. Leaven was also understood to be symbolic of sin and was never allowed in sacrifices. Jesus would have been holding a piece of unleavened bread in his hand when he said “This is my body,” signifying his worthiness as a sacrifice.

It is particularly interesting that for thousands of years, Passover has been understood to be both be a remembrance of God’s past salvation, as well as a time to expect God’s future redemption in the Messiah. They saw this as originally coming from a passage in Exodus:

“This same night is a night of watching unto the Lord for all the children of Israel throughout their generations” (Exodus 12:42).

The people of all generations were to watch for God’s final redeemer, the Messiah. Even today a door is opened and a place is set for Elijah, who is expected to announce the coming Messiah. Jesus used this time of great expectancy to proclaim himself as the Messianic King, bringing a new covenant for forgiveness of sins through the atonement by his own blood.

~~~~

Further reading:

Our Great Redemption
The Greater Story of Exodus
Who Are You Going to Work For?
Eating at the Lord’s Table
The Imagery of Leaven
The Powerful Imagery of Blood
Longing For Moses

The Lord’s Table as Covenant Meal, written by John Mark Hicks 
He Who Is Coming: The Hidden Afikoman, by Paul Sumner

If you would like to keep learning, En-Gedi also recommends the following articles:

Has DaVinci Painted Our Picture of Jesus?
Repainting Da Vinci Again
The Samaritan Passover
Passover in the Time of Jesus, by Daniel B. Wallace
New Light on Jesus’ Last Week

Photos: En-Gedi Resource Center, A Seder table setting [Public Domain]

The Universal Language of Sacrifice

There is probably nothing in the Bible so incomprehensible to modern Christians as the use of sacrifice in the Old Testament for the worship of God. We struggle with its bloody imagery. Why did God require it? How could people find it meaningful?

Surprisingly, even the New Testament views sacrifice in a positive light. Even after Jesus’ death, Paul and the early church continued to take part in the sacrifices at the Temple. Paul often spoke of them as a beautiful thing, expecting us to understand when he speaks about us as being “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). Paul also writes,

Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Ephesians 5:2

What does all of this strange imagery mean?

Ancient Thinking and God’s Instructions

The idea of sacrifice was not something that first originated in the Bible — it was familiar throughout the ancient world. God often spoke to his people in customs they already understood, but then modified them to say something different about himself.

Polytheists in the Ancient Near East believed that by making idols, they were making a bodily form for their god to inhabit, and when they put them in temples, they were giving them a home to live in. By furnishing the god’s home lavishly and bringing them the finest of foods as sacrifices, the god could be petitioned for favors.

The ancients also believed that the world was the property of the gods, and since the gods controlled all fertility, a person must always offer some of the harvest back to them. A planted field was sacred and off-limits until its first crops were given to the god, and all firstborn animals were the property of the gods too. If a person killed an animal, he was obligated to give an offering from the animal to pay the gods for its life.1 Because a person’s life depended on fertility of the soil and of animals, it was imperative to honor the gods in this way.

When God gave his people instructions for worship, he used these cultural ideas to teach them about himself. Because God is the true creator of the universe, and the “earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” (Ex. 9:29, Ps. 24:1) it was appropriate that the Israelites brought their harvest offerings to him. He was the one who gave their animals and fields fertility, not the idols that their neighbors worshipped.

God also told them to make a tabernacle, saying, “Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). Interestingly, God’s goal was not to dwell in it, but to dwell among them. He wanted to have intimacy with his people, and for them to know how near he was.

However, God was emphatic that no idols should be carved, because he is incomprehensible and utterly unlike all of the “gods” that others had been worshipping. He was using their understanding to tell them that while he desired a close relationship with his people, he was utterly unlike anything they had ever known before.

Sacrifices for Drawing Near to God, Not Just for Sin

The overall idea of sacrifices were that they were intended for drawing near to God. God wanted to dwell among his people, but because he is utterly holy, great effort had to be made to approach him in purity. Some sacrifices were for just that purpose, to sanctify an area to be acceptable in God’s sight.

The need for purification wasn’t necessarily due to any sin, but to ceremonial uncleanness that had to be removed. Sin needed to be atoned for as well, and the blood of a sacrifice was required, as well as repentance on the part of the worshipper.

A common misconception is that all sacrifices were for sin. Because sin and ceremonial uncleanness were intolerable to a holy God, they had to be removed so that his people could draw near him.2

One way we can see the picture of drawing near to God is in one of the most common Hebrew words for an offering, which was korban, derived from the verb karav, meaning “to come near.” This type of offering could be of many types, but it was to be without defect — the finest fruit, or grain, or animals. The people had the privilege of drawing close to a magnificent, glorious God, and nothing but the best would be appropriate to give him.

Another picture of how sacrifices were used to celebrate a relationship with God is in the fellowship or peace, shelem, offerings. These were different in that part of the sacrifice was offered up to God, but then the worshipper and his family and the priests ate some of it as well. The picture here was that God was inviting the worshipper to dine at his table, which was understood to be the very essence of having a peaceful relationship (shalom).

When covenants were made, an animal was sacrificed and all parties ate from it, showing the bond of peace between them and with God. This is the reason that after the covenant on Mt. Sinai, the seventy elders of Israel went up and ate at God’s table (Ex. 24:9-14). It is also the reason that the Passover meal, a fellowship offering, was often used as a celebration of recommitment to Israel’s covenant, and why Jesus chose the Passover at the Last Supper to speak of a “new covenant.”3

Interestingly, the way God partook of a worshipper’s sacrifice was to “smell its pleasing aroma.” It was as if the fire converted the earthly material into smoke, which somehow ascended to God.

It might seem too anthropomorphic to imagine that God has a nose that sniffs from the sky, but to ancient people, it made as much sense as believing that God can “see” us without physical eyes and “hear” our prayers without actual ears. The Hebrew word for “to smell,” rayach, can also have the sense of “delight in” or “enjoy.” When someone gives a wonderful, precious gift to God, he savors it as a delightful aroma.4

I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. (Phil. 4:18)

Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Ephesians 5:2)

A Costly Sacrifice

An important part of the sacrifice was its costliness to the worshipper. Before money had been invented, animals and crops were the “currency” of the world, and each animal would have been very expensive. Offerings that could be obtained with little expense or effort, like fish or game caught from the wild, were not used as sacrifices. Instead, animals that a person raised himself or that were purchased were required.

As King David said, “I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24). Jesus also pointed this out when he said the widow’s mite was worth far more to God than the larger offerings of the wealthy donor, because her gift was a real sacrifice — all that she had to live on (Mark 12:43).

To ancient people, it was very meaningful to feel that they had taken something precious of theirs and given it to God, and that he had accepted it. Or that they had sat at God’s table and eaten a meal in his presence. They felt that they had come close to God, and that he would respond to the needs they brought to him.

Today we often approach God with prayer and singing, but an ancient person likely would feel this was a little less real — like saying that you loved someone, rather than showing your love for them. Certainly at some points the system was abused, but for thousands of years, people expressed their love for God by taking the very best things they had and offering them up to him.5

The Language of Sacrifice

Even though we do not give God sacrifices now, the idea of love being expressed through sacrifice is still universally understood. Many remember the classic short story, The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry.6 A young couple was nearly penniless, but had two prized possessions: the husband’s pocket watch that had been his father’s and grandfather’s, and the wife’s long, beautiful hair.

At Christmas each one wanted to give the other a gift, so the woman secretly cut off her hair and sold it to a wig maker, and bought her husband a gold chain for the watch. The same day, the man secretly sold his watch to buy an expensive set of combs for her hair. The beauty of the story is in the fact that each was willing to sacrifice their most prized possession for the other. We all can instinctively feel the depth of the love they had for each other.

This is a truth that we all know in our hearts: that people will do nothing that works to their own detriment for someone else, except if they truly love them. This is the power of the message of the Gospel — that Jesus suffered and died for us, without us doing anything to deserve it. As Paul said,

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:7-8)

For those of us who believe that Jesus really is God incarnate, this is something we can cling to during times of suffering, when it seems that God might not really care about us. Knowing that God was willing to suffer for us decides the matter once and for all.

God loves us deeply and his great love for us can never be shaken, because he was willing to die for us at our very worst. It is interesting that when humans desired to come near to God, they sacrificed their very finest things to show him their love, and when God desired to draw near to humans, he sacrificed his precious Son!

This language of sacrifice carries across the widest gaps of culture. We learned this during En-Gedi’s trip to install water purification units in Africa some years ago that was led by Bruce Okkema.7 The last unit to be put in was among the Maasai tribe in Kenya. While the other installations went fairly smoothly, this one was fraught with problems, with the expensive pumps repeatedly burning out and the pipeline buckling from the heat of the sun.

The Maasai people watched Bruce work hard through his own weariness and discouragement, cancel his vacation and delay his flight home to finally get it running. When he finally succeeded (with much prayer), what really impressed the Maasai was not the gift of the water unit, which was a tremendous blessing to them. Rather, they told Bruce over and over that they knew he truly loved them when they saw him sacrificing so much of himself to get the job done.

His actions were speaking a universal language. The Maasai had been told about a Jesus who loved them and who died on the cross for them thousands of years ago, but here he was again standing right in front of them, in the person of one of his followers sacrificing himself for them!

As Jesus’ disciples, we are supposed to imitate our rabbi, and we are supposed to raise up other disciples to be like him.8 Christ’s example of being a “living sacrifice” is a model for our way of life, and it is also the most effective way to communicate his love to the world.

~~~~

1 Animals were generally not slaughtered without some kind of sacrifice ceremony. In Deuteronomy 12:15-16, God gave a specific instruction that they were allowed to eat meat that wasn’t sacrificed at the Temple as long as they poured out the blood on the ground. This implied that the Israelites didn’t feel they could do so until told otherwise. (They poured out the blood because God owns the “life,” which the blood signifies.) In the New Testament, the eating of meat sacrificed to idols was also a problem because Gentiles always sacrificed animals to pagan gods before eating them, so all meat for sale was associated with idol worship (1 Cor. 10).

2 Baruch Levine, JPS Torah Commentary on Leviticus, Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1989, p. 216. See also the chapter on korban in Buried Treasure: Secrets from Living from the Lord’s Language by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, (Multinomah, Oregon, 2001) pp. 29-33. And, see The Five Books of Moses by Everett Fox, (Schocken, New York, 1983) pp. 506-508.

3 For more on this, see the article “Eating at the Lord’s Table” at www.egrc.net.

4 Many Hebrew verbs have broad definitions that include both a sensory input and its outcome — “to hear” also means “to obey,” “to see” can mean “to provide for” and “to remember” can mean “to help.” The idea of smelling a sweet fragrance as “delighting” follows that pattern. See Listening to the Language of the Bible (En-Gedi, 2004) for more.

5 Christians point out that Jesus was the final sacrifice for all sin, but many wonder why the Jewish people stopped sacrificing. The reason was because of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, after which there was no acceptable place to sacrifice. Even before the destruction of the Temple, practices were changing to focus on the local synagogue, since only people living in Jerusalem could take part regularly in Temple sacrifices. Modern churches descended from the synagogue, which focused on prayer and study of the Scripture rather than on sacrifice.

6 See “The Gift of the Magi” for the original story by O. Henry, 1905, (public domain).

7 A similar circumstance occurred during of the beginning of En-Gedi’s ministry. Read more in the article “Faith in Doubtful Times: Learning from the Fall Festival.” 

8 See the article “Raise Up Many Disciples!” and the book New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, (En-Gedi, 2005) pp. 9-21.

Photos: Illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], Patrick Schneider on UnsplashKjartan Einarsson on Unsplash

Hasidut: Righteousness that Goes Beyond the Law

Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

 

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, we find some of Jesus’ most challenging teachings. He said that those who do and teach others to do even the least of God’s commands will be called “great” in his kingdom. He speaks about having “righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees,” and then he tightens many laws, comparing lust to adultery, and anger to murder, etc. He then makes extreme statements about cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin, and concludes with words about aiming to be perfect, like God himself.

These words of Jesus are a struggle for many of us. One traditional approach to dealing with them is to say that Jesus was actually showing how impossible it is to earn our way to heaven, to cause us to ask for salvation by grace instead. However, it’s hard to believe that Jesus was setting up impossible standards simply to discourage people from keeping them. Jesus challenged his disciples to live according to his teachings, and he did so himself. Understanding his Jewish context better will allow us to unravel several “knots” in this passage.

First of all, it is important to understand that “entering the kingdom of Heaven” is not synonymous with “going to heaven when you die.” The phrase “kingdom of Heaven,” malkhut shemayim, (mal-KHOOT sha-MA-yeem) is synonymous with “kingdom of God,” and it refers to God’s redemptive reign on earth right now. To “enter” or to “receive” his kingdom was to enthrone God as your king, committing yourself to be a part of God’s “team” and to do his will.

Jesus’ references to the “kingdom of Heaven” in the Sermon on the Mount were really about how to aim to do God’s will as members of his kingdom, not how to earn your way to heaven.1 Our salvation is based on Jesus’ atonement for our sins, not on “earning our way.”

The Idea of Hasidut

Jesus may have actually had an idea in mind that was in the culture at that time. He appears to be focusing on the idea of hasidut – (hah-see-DOOT), a rabbinic term which is often translated “piety.”2 It means to walk closely with God and be utterly obedient to him. A hasid (ha-SEED), a pious person, eagerly asks the question, “What more can I do to please you?”

The idea is that they don’t focus on the minimum requirements, but on going beyond the rules to serve God. An Orthodox Jewish source describes the idea of being a hasid this way:

The hasid is one who goes beyond the letter of the law in his service of G-d. He does not do only what he is told, but he looks for ways to fulfill G-d’s will. This requires intelligence and planning; one must anticipate just what G-d wants of him and how he can best use his own talents in service of his Creator. [This is] in direct contrast to mock-piety – fasting, wailing, rolling in the snow, etc…. G-d has no interest in senseless service – that we do things just because they’re hard (and get us a lot of notice). Piety is not doing things which hurt. It is careful, planned and responsible service of G-d. We are not to sacrifice ourselves for G-d with self-destructive acts of devotion; we are to *live* for Him.3

The goal of most rabbis was to interpret God’s Torah (law, teaching or instruction) so that people could apply it to their lives and live within its limits; but if you think about it, laws can only define the very minimum required to not sin, they can’t legislate what you could do purely out of love. If this is Jesus’ thinking, it clarifies his words about “righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees…” (Mt 5:20). The phrase “scribes and Pharisees” may not be about them as people, but as the recognized interpreters of the law.

One translation says, “Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law…” (New English Translation). You could read this as, “do more than what the finest interpreters of the law say you must do.” Then the passage isn’t about being stricter than the strictest, but about seeking to do God’s will beyond its official interpretation. Jesus was not saying, “sit back and enjoy your free ride to heaven,” but exactly the opposite — “if God is really your king, you need to do your utmost to please him.”

Hasidut and the Sermon on the Mount

Understanding the idea of hasidut helps us see the overall message of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus points out various minimums set in the law, and then says to go beyond that. The law says “don’t kill” but you should not even stay angry. The law says, “don’t commit adultery” but you should not even lust.

The law says you can take vows in God’s name, but instead, you should be a person who has such integrity that your “yes” and “no” are just as good. Not only should you not seek revenge against your enemies, you should find ways to show them and everyone else the love of God. Loan people your money, carry their burdens. Anything!

Ultimately, the whole sermon is not so much about a list of toughened rules, but about exhorting us to change where our aim is. It is easy to look for what the minimum is so that you can just do that, but in every case Jesus is saying, “Don’t live by the minimum!” Don’t say to yourself, as long as I don’t commit adultery, it’s fine to lust. Don’t say that as long as I don’t kill someone, I can be furious with them. If you want to be a part of God’s redemptive kingdom on earth, don’t ask how little you can do, but ask how much you can do, to please your Father in heaven.

“Fear of Sin”

A central aspect of being a hasid in Jewish thinking was that one tried to walk intimately with God. To be close to God meant that you needed to do everything to keep sin out of your life. From this came the concept of yireh chet, (yeer-EH het) “fear of sin.” Here, “fear” doesn’t mean being terrified of punishment or of God’s anger. Rather, it is to be horrified by the idea of having sin disrupt your intimate walk with God.

As a result, a person who is a “sin-fearer” would do everything possible to keep it out of his or her life. Jesus’ strong words about cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye fit with this idea of “fearing sin.” Jesus had a great revulsion to sin because he realized what it did to break the relationship between God and man. He used hyperboles to motivate his listeners to avoid it at all costs.

A person who was aiming for hasidut set his own boundaries inside of the rules as others kept them, so that he didn’t come close to breaking the Law. A recent example is two ultra-orthodox leaders from Jerusalem who booked a flight to the US and bought all the seats in the first class section of a plane, requested only male flight attendants, and even taped over the TV monitors.4 They went to enormous expense to avoid being tempted by sin.

This is especially appropriate to think about during the month of Elul, which usually occurs during the summer on the Gregorian calendar. Elul is the last month before the High Holy Days and the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and ask for forgiveness of their sins. It is traditional to spend the month in self-examination and repentance.

Interestingly, many sermons mention that the letters of the month Elul, aleph-lamed-vav-lamed, are the beginning letters of the phrase Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This is the highly romantic phrase from Song of Solomon that is often engraved on wedding rings. The take-home point is that during the month of Elul, our motivation for repentance should come from a desire to rid ourselves of anything that may have come between us and a deeply loving relationship with God.5

The Danger of Trying to Be a Hasid

Throughout the centuries there have been movements in Judaism and in Christianity that have tried to draw closer to God by becoming fastidious about observance and in keeping away from sin. While the goal is admirable, whenever a person tries to live this way there are many potential traps. One can easily become a legalist, or prideful, or hypocritical, or elitist. In light of this, it is interesting to read the following quote:

There are seven kinds of Pharisees: the “shoulder” Pharisee, who ostentatiously carries his good deeds on his shoulder so all can see them; the “wait-a-moment” Pharisee, who wants you to wait while he performs a mitzvah (good deed); the bruised Pharisee, who runs into a wall while looking at the ground to avoid seeing a woman; the “reckoning” Pharisee, who commits a sin, then does a good deed and balances the one against the other; the “pestle” Pharisee, whose head is bowed in false humility, like a pestle in a mortar; the Pharisee who asks, “What is my duty, so that I may do it?” as if he thought he had fulfilled every obligation already; the Pharisee from fear, like Job; and the Pharisee from love, like Abraham.6

Many recognize how similar this passage is to Jesus’ “woes” of Matthew 23. It might surprise Christians that the Pharisaic movement practiced its own self-criticism and noted the same kinds of errors that Jesus did. More than one scholar has pointed out that Jesus’ statements might be like the “seven kinds” saying in another way.

Instead of accusing every person of all of the sins that he speaks of, they assert that each “woe” is pointed at only the people who are falling into those sins. Instead of the blanket statement, “Woe to all of you — you’re all greedy, legalistic, and hypocritical!” he was saying something like, “Woe to you who are greedy, and woe to you who are legalistic, and you who are hypocritical!” Rather than condemning the whole group, he may have been pointing out the errors, just as the other rabbis did.7

It’s easy for us to read these passages about the seven types of Pharisees smugly, as if only the foolish Pharisees could ever have fallen into these problems. Instead, we should see them as wise words to anyone who is passionate about trying to live as God intended. There are so many ways to go wrong — by slipping into pride, or legalism, or by becoming hypocritical.

The answer is not to just give up and be worldly. The rabbis have an excellent insight that sounds like Jesus may have been saying the same thing. They point out that of all of the types of Pharisees, the only one that is truly commendable is the one that serves entirely out of love. One rabbi says it this way:

To serve with love does not mean just following the Torah and commandments, and not walking in the path of wisdom because of other reasons: to avoid bad consequences, and to be rewarded. Rather, it is doing the right thing because it is right, and in the end good comes because of it. This quality is very great and not every wise man attained it. This is the rank of our father Abraham whom the Holy blessed One has called “my lover” [Is. 41:8] because he served only for the sake of love. The Holy blessed One has commanded this virtue through Moshe as it is said: “You shall love Hashem your God.” When one loves God with proper love, automatically one performs all commandments with love.8

This fits completely with Jesus’ statement that all the commands can be summarized by “Love the Lord your God,” and even quotes that same verse. It seems that Jesus and later rabbis both saw that when you are obeying God purely out of love for him, you are eager to go beyond the minimum. When your love for God motivates you to keep from things that tempt you into sin, you can set up boundaries without becoming arrogant or legalistic about them.

Hasidut: The True Goal of Discipleship

This sermon of Jesus is difficult, but it is his goal for us as his disciples. No one is capable of doing this when they first believe, but we can aim to be a little more like this every day of our lives.

In some churches we don’t hear much of this message because Jesus’ great commission to “raise up disciples of all nations” has been interpreted as only meaning, “share the gospel with the lost.” Then the emphasis is on how easy it is to receive the free gift of salvation, and the only thing that we teach after that is how to evangelize others.

A disciple is much more than a mere convert, however, and believing in Christ is not God’s supreme goal for us — it is only the beginning of a life of walking ever closer to him. To go no deeper than “accepting Christ” is to be like the seed that fell on the rock or in the thorns — it sprouted, but bore little or no fruit (Lk 8:4-15). As critical as it is to share the message of Christ with the world, Jesus’ challenge to us is to always seek to go higher and deeper in our love and service to him.

~~~~

SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

1 See the article “What Is the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

2 Many points in this article are based on the talk “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer,” by David Pileggi, which was given at the Insights into Jesus of Nazareth Seminar, which is available at the link. Also, see “Jesus and the Hasidim” by Shmuel Safrai, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

3 Rabbi David Rosenfeld, Pirke Avot, Mishnahs 10-11 at torah.org, adapted.

4 Story from Dwight Pryor, as quoted by David Pileggi in “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer.” See footnote above.

5 Many stories are based on this saying about Elul. An example is at this link.

6 Babylonian Talmud (supplement), Avot de R. Nathan 37.4.

7 David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992) p. 69. Also, Menachem Mansoor, Encyclopedia Judaica, (Jerusalem: Macmillan and Keter, 1972) 13:366.

8 Rebbi Moshe ben Mimoun, “Hasiduth: Love and Av’oda” The word “Hashem” means “the name” in Hebrew and substitutes for God’s name, as does the phrase “the Holy Blessed One.” This is done out of reverence, so that the name of God is not used irreverently and thereby profaned. This is also the rationale behind spelling “God” with a dash in the middle, and also Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” where “Heaven” is an indirect reference to God. This is actually an illustration of “fear of sin” – going out of one’s way to avoid doing wrong. For more on the Jewish traditions regarding the name of God, See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005), pp. 55-58.

Photos: Макаров [Public domain]

Thinking Biblically Takes Both Hands

by Lois Tverberg

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)


Many have seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof and recall that the father, Tevya, had an amusing habit of chewing over every issue with several rounds of, “On the one hand… but on the other hand…!” This habit of looking at things in terms of two contrasting viewpoints is distinctly Jewish, and a part of their Eastern-thinking culture.

Often the two points of view are left unresolved and simply accepted as a paradox. Western-thinking Christians, however, often struggle to find systematic treatment of every issue, and are frustrated by how the Bible sometimes seems to be contradictory. Rather than trying to make the Bible more “logical” by Western standards, we’ll have a deeper understanding of it if we learn to read it with “both hands,” as Jesus, Paul and Jews over the ages have done.1

Paradoxes throughout Bible

If you think about it, many of the most important truths of the Bible are paradoxical. God is both omniscient, but yet he is present at certain times in a unique way, like at the burning bush. Jesus is both fully human and fully God. God is loving and in control, and yet he allows tragedy and injustice to take place.

Jesus’ words also often come in paradoxes. He says that “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last” (Mk 9:35) and that “he who loves his life will lose it, while he who hates his life will keep it for eternity” (Jn 12:25).

When Western-thinkers find a paradox in the Bible, they often are tempted to resolve the conflict by rejecting one side for the other. For instance, the question of whether humans have free will or whether our actions are predestined has divided Christians for centuries.

Some reject free will entirely, as if humans are only puppets in God’s hands. Others reject the idea that God is in control, imagining that God is wringing his hands in heaven, hoping that in the end everything will come out OK. Many churches have divided over these issues.

In contrast, the rabbinic answer was simply, “God foresees everything, yet man has free will.”2 Their observation was that passages in Scripture actually support both points of view! Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and yet God hardened his heart (Ex 7:3, 13; 8:15). God foresaw that it would take 400 years for the Canaanites to become so evil that he would evict them from their land (Gen 16:15). But he also offered the choice to the Israelites to take on his covenant or not (Dt 30:19).

Amazingly, the rabbis simply embrace the two ideas in tension with each other rather than needing to seek resolution. By doing so, they are actually being true to the text by not ignoring passages that don’t fit their theology. They see that God alone can understand some things.

Balancing Mercy and Justice in a Parable

One Jewish way of comprehending contrasting truths is to put them into a parable. For instance, God describes himself as both slow to anger and forgiving, yet he says he will punish the wicked to the third and fourth generation (Ex. 34:6-7). Some have concluded that the God of the Old Testament was full of judgment, but is now full of love, since Christ died for our sins. If we read more closely, however, we find that neither is the case.

God forgave the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf, but then forbade Moses, his greatest prophet, from entering the promised land because he struck the rock. Likewise, Jesus spoke about the coming judgment more than anyone else in the New Testament, yet he told the woman caught in adultery that her sins had been forgiven. He said, “Woe to you, blind guides!” (Matt 23:16) but later said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). 

How can God be both just and merciful? The rabbis told the following parable:

“This may be compared to a king who had a craftsman make for him an extremely delicate, precious goblet. The king said, ‘If I pour hot liquid into it, it will burst, if I pour ice cold liquid into it, it will crack!’ What did the King do? He mixed the hot and the cold together and poured it into it, and it did not crack.” Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say: “If I create the world on the basis of the attribute of mercy alone, it will be overwhelmed with sin; but if I create it on the basis of the attribute of justice alone, how could the world endure? I will therefore create it with both the attributes of mercy and justice, and may it endure!” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15, adapted.3)

This parable doesn’t use detailed theological terms to explain why God is merciful sometimes and why he chooses to judge at other times — it merely points out that both are needed in order for God to reign over creation while allowing it to survive. Parables like this show the difference between Jewish and Christian thought, because they attempt to comprehend by describing through story, without the assumption that humans can explain God’s mysterious ways.

Besides being a wise approach to looking at the nature of God, this parable also illustrates the “both hands” approach of Judaism as to how we should live. It points out that a blend of mercy and judgment is often what we need in our lives.

Parents struggle with the balance of enforcing rules along with showing grace to their children — not being too strict, yet not letting their kids run wild. Or, when our spouses do something that hurts us, should we forgive them and let it slide, or, should we bring our hurt and anger to their attention?

Christians tend to think there must be only one right way to act in these situations — either to never let sin go unpunished, or to always be forgiving. In reality, we need to have both discernment and balance. Even God walks the difficult line between mercy and judgment! We can turn to him for guidance because he knows our struggles beyond what we could ever imagine.

“Weighing” the Laws Against Each Other

Another way Jewish thought seeks balance is in its approach to the law. Christians have traditionally understood all of the commandments to be of equal importance, but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow.

For instance, the command to circumcise on the eight day took precedence over the Sabbath (Jn 7:22). This came out of an effort to live by God’s laws in all situations, rather than arbitrarily ignoring some and doing others. They would describe the laws in terms of being “light,” kal, and “heavy,” hamur. Certain principles derived from the Bible were used to organize laws relative to each other, and the focus of many rabbinic debates was how to prioritize them.

One rabbinic principle is Pikuach Nephesh (pi-KOO-akh NEH-fesh), which is the preservation of life.4 The rabbis saw that Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not stand by while your brother’s blood is shed” — meaning if someone’s life is in danger, you must intervene. The Torah also says the law was given in order to bring life, (Ex. 30:15-16), so they concluded that all laws (except a few) should be set aside to save a human life.5

Because of this, Jewish doctors and nurses go to work on the Sabbath, because they may potentially save a life, and if a person is ill, he or she is supposed to eat on Yom Kippur, the day when eating and drinking are strictly forbidden. Even the possibility of saving a life is enough to put this principle into effect. The rabbis would disagree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy of refusing blood transfusions in a medical emergency, because of the prohibition against drinking blood in Genesis 9:4. The weightier law is to save life!

ScaleAn interesting example shows the contrasts in approach to the law. Imagine you lived in Europe during World War II and were hiding Jews in your home, and a Nazi came demanding to know where they were. Should you lie or tell the truth? According to the principle of Pikuach Nephesh, you should lie to save their lives. There is also biblical precedent in Exodus, when the midwives lied to Pharaoh rather than to kill the Israelite boys, and God rewarded them (Ex. 1:19-21).

Surprisingly, Christians have sometimes come to the opposite conclusion. The theologian St. Augustine actually said, “Since, then, eternal life is lost by lying, a lie may never be told for the preservation of the temporal life of another.”6 He would conclude that a person must answer the Nazi truthfully no matter what. It appears that in his thinking, all rules are absolute. This logic forces one to conclude that law to intervene to save life (Lev. 19:16) and the law against lying (Lev. 19:11) are irreconcilable.

Jesus Weighed the Laws Too

Jesus used the principle of Pikuach Nephesh when he was arguing what may be done on the Sabbath in Luke 6, when he said, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Both activities under debate in that chapter were an effort to preserve life — the plucking of grain to satisfy hunger, and the healing of the man’s hand.

The point was not that Jesus was throwing aside the Sabbath as unimportant, because keeping the Sabbath was extremely important throughout the Torah. It was the “sign of the covenant” which was symbolic of a Jew’s commitment to all of the Sinai covenant (Ex. 31:13). Jesus was saying that as important as it is to honor the Sabbath, human life is even more important. He concluded, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

How then do we prioritize our obedience? The idea of “weighting” the laws of the Torah was likely the rationale for the question, “Of all the commands, which is greatest?” (Mark 12:28-30). The lawyer was asking, “What is our ultimate priority as we try to obey God?” Jesus’ answer, of course, was to quote the commands that said that we should love God wholeheartedly, and love our neighbor. Everything we do should be towards that end.

Jesus illustrates his point with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which points out the wrong priorities of the two characters who wanted to go worship at the Temple rather than helping the dying man. Of course, the right thing to do in this case was to attend the needs of the wounded man, showing him the love of God.

Does this mean we can ignore God’s standards altogether? Not at all! Reading Matthew 5, one wonders if Jesus was accused of this, and he needed to defend his approach. There he emphatically said he came not to undermine the law, but to explain it and live by it faithfully.7

He then said that anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. He was emphatically stating that we should aim to be obedient in all ways, but that we should always aim to love, and that sets our priorities for how we should obey. As Tevya would phrase it, on the one hand, be obedient, but on the other hand, choose to love!

This is a wise word for how to discern what to do when two commands conflict with each other. If you must choose one over the other, choose the one that shows the most love. If you don’t do yard work on Sunday (or Saturday), but your elderly mother really needs her lawn mowed and it’s the only day you can help, you should do it then. Or, if your family celebrates holidays with a tradition that you don’t embrace, seek to do what is loving rather than dividing the family over it. Choose the most loving path. Jesus himself would probably do the same thing in your situation, and indeed, he is using you to do it.

~~~~

To explore this topic more, see chapter 10, “Thinking with Both Hands” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 130-41.

 

1 Two other excellent references for further reading are: Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, by Marvin Wilson (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989) pp 150-153; and The Gospel According to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me About Jesus, by Athol Dickson (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), pp 63-80.

2 Rabbi Akiva, (who lived between about 50-135 AD) Mishnah, Avot 3:16.

3 See “Jewish Concepts: Loving-kindness” from jewishvirtuallibrary.org for more.

4 B. Talmud, Shabbat 132a.

5 There were three laws that were so weighty that they could not be broken to save life, and these were idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. These also were the three laws given to the Gentiles who were entering the early church in Acts 15, according to David Bivin. See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, pp. 141-144.

6 As quoted by J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p. 100.

7 See the article “What Does It Mean to ‘Fulfill the Law’” at www.egrc.net.

Photos: Portland Center Stage [Flikr], Sébastien Bourdon [Public domain], , Balthasar van Cortbemde [Public domain]

Living Out Jesus’ Words on Judging

by Lois Tverberg

This article is a follow-up to our article “What did Jesus mean by, ‘Do Not Judge‘?” Here is a brief summary of the article we sent out before:

Christians have a hard time understanding what Jesus says about judging, because it sounds as if Jesus is saying, “Have no discernment — just ignore sin!” This doesn’t seem right to us, so we put it aside, but his words were building on some wise Jewish teaching of his day.

They relate to a well-known rabbinic saying, “Judge every person in favorable terms” (Mishnah, Avot 1:6). This comes from their interpretation of Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” The rabbis said that if we want to be entirely fair in judging our neighbors, we should always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior, and far too often we unfairly assume the worst.

Jesus’ words, “Do Not Judge”

So, how do Jesus’ words that say, “Do not judge” compare with the ethic of judging favorably? The idea behind judging favorably is to find ways to assume that other’s intentions are good. Given what we know about human nature, however, we know that people will sin willfully and intentionally.

At some point when we have been offended, we need to realize that if we are sinners ourselves, then we can’t demand judgment on others. We need to put aside judgment and extend mercy instead. As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven… For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:35-38)

Obviously, this is not saying to avoid having discernment. We can discern whether an action or an attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5), and if the the wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive (Matt 18:15-17). Leviticus 19:17-18 says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

While we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the whole motive of the heart, so we need to leave final judgment of the person up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. When we are in a situation where we are tempted to pass judgment, we need to step back and hand it up to the Lord, and remind ourselves that that is his job and not ours.

As James says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12) and Paul reminds us, “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10).

 

 

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it encompasses many other types of behavior that we know are wrong. All insults are forms of judgment. If we like an assertive woman, we may describe her as “bold and self-assured,” but if we don’t, we will judge her negatively by calling her “arrogant and loud-mouthed.” A man may simply be uninformed, but when we call him “stupid” we have judged him negatively. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother” (James 4:11).

Gossip relies heavily on judgment. People who love to gossip usually have a habit of looking for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others.

Criticism, cynicism, and complaining are all based on searching out the negative everywhere we can find it. Even people who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in always looking for something wrong in other peoples’ actions — by their own act of judging negatively.

Our culture is also filled to the brim with “judging.” Politics seems unable to function without it. Republicans accuse Democrats of ugly, self-interested reasons for every action, and Democrats say the same about Republicans. Editorials are filled with cynicism about the evil motives of the government, and inept handling of international affairs. Tabloids, comedians, and political talk shows delight in finding prominent peoples’ faults and holding them up for ridicule.

Unfortunately, we don’t notice that participating in that kind of judgment slowly fills us with the same ugly attitude toward others, even poisoning our relationships with loved ones.


Applying this idea to our own lives

In our own ministry, we have experienced unique ways this has been a guide for us. En-Gedi shares information about the Jewish background of Christianity, which gives insights that cast new light on the Bible and fill in many gaps. It is not uncommon when a person starts learning more to have an attitude of judgment and ask, “Why wasn’t I told this ever before?” Some people become quite angry about it. The same folks who once expressed their love for God in traditional Christian ways suddenly feel that those who observe the same traditions are practicing paganism!

It’s possible to have a neutral discussion about whether a tradition is sound using the Bible as guide, and we may even change our own practice. This is is exercising discernment. This is very different than accusing others of idolatry when the intent of their hearts is to lovingly worship God.

One thing we’ve realized is that any time a new, good insight enters the Christian world, it can become a source of division because of our habit of judging negatively. Whether it is learning about our Jewish heritage, or using spiritual gifts, or adopting contemporary worship styles, Christians often reflect the pervasive habit of condemnation that is part of our world, one they hardly realize is toxic and destructive.

Christians would do well to focus more on the ethic to judge favorably. While some children grow up scarred from physical abuse, many more grow up scarred from relentless criticism from parents who did not judge them favorably. Indeed, the worst “judges” are often those who never received mercy themselves, and never learned to extend it to others. Realizing this should cause us to refrain from condemning the most judgmental, because we don’t know how much criticism they have endured themselves.

To hear Jesus one more time,

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:36-38 

~~~~~

To explore this topic more, see chapter 8, “Taking My Thumb off the Scale” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 104-16.

Photos: Claire Anderson on Unsplash; Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

 

What Did Jesus Mean By “Do Not Judge?”

by Lois Tverberg 

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

What did Jesus mean by “do not judge?” This is one of those sayings of Jesus that can be unclear. It can sound like Jesus was telling us to look the other way when we see sin. From everything else that Jesus said, we know that he couldn’t be suggesting this. Yet, to not be guilty of “judging,” we often try to avoid calling sin for what it is.

To better understand what Jesus meant, it is helpful to study some of the discussion going on among Jesus’ contemporaries and see if they can shed light on his words. Interestingly, we find a great discussion and some very wise thinking related to the concept of “do not judge.” Jesus appears to be building on these Jewish ideas in his own words on judging.

Judging Others Favorably

ScaleA rabbi who lived more than a hundred years before Jesus said, “Judge everyone with the scales weighted in their favor” (Yehoshua ben Perechia, Avot 1:6). In a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, it says “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God” (Shabbat 127a).

It is interesting to see how reminiscent these sayings are to Jesus’ words, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” To “judge in favorable terms” was considered as important as visiting the sick, devotion in prayer, or teaching the Scriptures to your children!

A story was told to illustrate the point:

A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages so that he could go home and support his wife and children. The farm owner said to him, “I have no money to give you!”
So he said to him, “Well, give me some of the crops I’ve helped grow.”
The man replied, “I have none!”
“Well then, give me some of the goats or sheep, that I’ve helped to raise!”
And the farmer shrugged and said that he had nothing he could give him. So the farm hand gathered up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart.
A few days later his employer came to his house with all of his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to him, “When I told you I had no money, what did you suspect me of?”
“I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your cash to buy it.”
Then he said “What did you think when I said that I had no crops?”
“I thought perhaps they were all leased from others.”
He then said, “What did you think when I said I had no animals?”
“I thought that you may have dedicated them all to the Temple.”
The farmer answered him, “You are right! My son wouldn’t study the Scriptures, and I had rashly vowed all of my possessions to God in my prayers for my son. But, just a couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!”1

This story is a great example of resisting condemnation. It also parallels, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Could this enlighten us to the gist of what Jesus was saying? The idea in the story is that the hired hand always gave the employer the benefit of the doubt by imagining the best possible motivation for his suspicious actions. This is exactly what the rabbis meant by “judging a neighbor favorably.”

This seems like a nice thought, but hardly an earth-shaking interpretation of Jesus’ words. But, what if we applied it to our own lives? Just imagine these situations and the choices you might have in your reactions:

♦ On the way to church, a car passes you on the road and cuts you off. Why?

The driver is has no regard for speed laws!
<or>
Maybe the driver is late for something, or his kids are driving him crazy.

♦ In church, you are asked to greet the people around you, but the lady in front of you was obviously avoiding you. Why?

She is obviously a snob and you didn’t dress well enough today!
<or>
Maybe she’s new to the church or uncomfortable meeting people.

♦ A woman asks you afterward about the surgery that you had. Why?

She’s a busybody who just wants to put her nose in your business!
<or>
Maybe she genuinely worries about others and wants to share your burdens.

In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior. The way we interpret others’ motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others. This idea of the rabbis to “judge favorably” certainly was wise, even if it isn’t exactly what Jesus said.

The Worship War

Imagine another scenario where a “worship war” has broken out in a congregation. The older members want to sing hymns and the young members want a rock band. The older people are saying things like, “They have no appreciation for the richness of hymns — they only want to be entertained!” The younger people respond with, “The old folks don’t care about reaching the lost — they just want to do things the same old way!”

What would happen if each group stopped assigning negative motivations to the other group? What if the “hymns only” group started saying, “Maybe the younger members of our church think that they can bring new meaning to the service by putting it in their own style…”

What if the “rock band” enthusiasts started saying, “Maybe the older members find more meaning in what’s familiar rather than in what sounds strange to them…”

How long would the conflict last in that church? How long would it be before both groups would try their best to accommodate each other?

To this day, Jewish culture has endeavored to instill in its people the ethic to “judge favorably.” One Jewish group meets simply to practice finding ways to give the benefit of the doubt when it appears someone has done something unkind. They reflect on hurts in their lives and then propose ways to excuse the perpetrator. For example, when one of them didn’t receive an invitation to a wedding, they would say, “Perhaps the person was under the impression that they had already sent an invitation,” or, “Perhaps they couldn’t afford to invite many people.”2

One Jewish website, called “The Other Side of the Story,” is filled with stories where a person looked liked he was in the wrong, but then turned out to be innocent. The point is simply to teach others the importance of judging favorably.

Jesus’ Words, “Do Not Judge”

Even though the rabbis’ words are wise, they aren’t exactly what Jesus said. How does Jesus teaching about “do not judge” compare to others? Jesus began with what the other rabbis taught and then increased the challenge. His audience likely already knew about “judging favorably,” because it had been around for at least a hundred years.

The famous rabbi Hillel, who lived fifty years before Jesus, said, “Judge not your fellow man until you yourself come into his place” (Avot 2:5). His idea was that we shouldn’t judge because we don’t have full knowledge of another’s life experience. We can’t know if someone struggles with depression or a wound from their past. Hillel’s idea is a step closer to what Jesus said, and it shows that the discussion of “judging” was still going on in Jesus’ time.

However, Jesus’ reasoning was different from Hillel’s. Jesus began with a less optimistic perspective of humanity, knowing that often people sin willfully and intentionally. Even if you give them every benefit of the doubt, at some point it will be undeniable that the person’s intention was evil, and you shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t.

In the midst of this realism, Jesus says that our response must be to remind ourselves of our own sinful hearts, the only hearts we really can know. Seeing our own sinful nature, we shouldn’t place judgment on others. If we want God to be merciful to us, we need to put aside condemnation and extend mercy instead.

As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you” (Luke 6:35-38).

Rather than saying, “Judge favorably,” perhaps Jesus would have said, “Judge mercifully! Do everything you can to extend mercy to others.”

But Have Discernment

Obviously, this is not to cast aside discernment. We should discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is not only to discern, but also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5). When a wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive (Matt 18:15-17).

JudgeWhile we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the motive of the heart. We need to leave final judgment up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. So when we are in a situation where we are tempted to condemn someone, we need to step back, hand the situation over to the Lord, and remind ourselves that it is his job to render judgement, not ours. As we read in James 4:12, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”

Both the teachings of the rabbis and the words of Jesus are extremely useful in every day life. Our attitude toward others becomes more loving when we assume the best rather than the worst. If we try to always “judge favorably,” we’ll be less likely to have a critical or cynical spirit towards others. Even when people are clearly in the wrong, we can give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it includes many other types of hurtful behavior as well. Insults are a form of judgment, such as calling someone arrogant or loud-mouthed. Gossip relies heavily on judgment too. People who gossip usually look for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others.

Criticism, cynicism, even complaining are all rooted in searching out the negative everywhere we can find it. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother” (James 4:11).

Negative judgments are particularly toxic to marriage relationships. In his book Blink,3 Malcolm Gladwell describes a study of married couples which examined the rate of divorce compared to attitudes the couple showed toward each other beforehand. The interviewers looked at dozens of variables and found one factor that could almost surely predict divorce — an attitude of contempt. When one or both partners habitually spoke to the other with disdain or disgust, even in the most subtle ways, the marriage was often moving toward a break up. If you think about it, contempt comes from a history of judging unfavorably and without mercy. It is a way of saying, “I have reached my verdict, and there is nothing good in you.”

People who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in looking for ugly motives in other peoples’ actions — their own act of judging negatively. If you think about it, anger always involves an accusation of sin. Next time you are angry, ask yourself what sin you might be accusing the other person of. Then remember that Jesus says that you are a sinner too. You can’t expect God’s mercy if you aren’t merciful to others (See Matthew 18:23-34).

Summary

All of us would do well to focus more on judging favorably and extending mercy. Both are ways of showing God’s grace. We’ll find that over time, it really has the potential to transform our personalities to be more like Christ. Listen to Jesus words one more time:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:35-38)

~~~~

1 B. Talmud, Shabbat 127a

2 J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York, ISBN 0609603302, p. 35.

3 M. Gladwell, Blink (c) 2005, Little, Brown & Co, New York, ISBN 9780316172325, pp. 30-34.

To explore this topic more, see chapter 8, “Taking My Thumb off the Scale” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 104-16.

Photos: John Salvino and Wesley Tingey on UnsplashLouis Smith on Unsplash; http://ferxtreme.hu/wp-content/uploads/birosag.jpg

Reflecting on the First Advent

by Lois Tverberg 

Advent Candles The prayers that surround Jesus’ birth are somewhat a puzzle to Christians, until we know the context. In Zechariah’s song, he rejoices that God has raised up someone who will bring “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Lk 1:71). Who is Zechariah talking about who hates them? And why was Simeon “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25)? They seem to have some great anxiety, and seem to be imploring God to save them from a great enemy. What was going on around them?

Let’s find out a little more about the history of the time. Remember Herod’s massacre of the infants around Bethlehem (Mt 2:16)? I used to read that as an isolated tragedy, but it actually was typical of the great brutality of Herod and the Romans.

I was especially struck by an incident that happened near Sepphoris, a city just a stone’s throw from Nazareth. If you’ve visited Israel, most likely you’ve walked through its amazing ruins. Scholars say that it’s quite likely Jesus and Joseph walked there each morning and worked in the city because it was so close.

In 4 BC, almost exactly the time of Jesus’ birth, an uprising occurred in Sepphoris. The Roman responded by scouring the countryside, rounding up two thousand rebels who were crucified. They swept through many of the towns, killing and destroying everything in sight. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, all its surviving inhabitants sold into slavery.

Just imagine, Jesus’ own hands may have chiseled some of the stones that rebuilt Sepphoris. He must have had family friends that told shocking stories of the cruel deaths of their relatives. In his adult ministry, he may have even healed some of their lingering wounds.

As I heard about the events of the first advent again I was newly sensitized to the great anguish of Jesus’ people. For a while I’d gotten used to hearing about all the Roman cruelty, and it seemed almost fictional. But then I read one historian liken the Roman government to the Nazis, calling it a “totalitarian regime.” He said that there was really no time in Jewish history that they suffered so much as the first century, outside of the Holocaust. And Jews have suffered a lot over history.

It was really a crisis of faith for them, because in the Old Testament, Israel was punished when it wandered from God. But in Jesus’ time, the most pious were the ones that suffered the most. About a hundred years before Jesus, Greeks tortured and killed Jews for reading the Torah and circumcising their children, and horrors like that kept occurring in his time. In Luke 13, some Galileans report that worshippers who had come to the Temple had been murdered, their blood mixed with their own sacrifices. I can hardly imagine their feelings.

This helps in understanding the groups of people around Jesus, because society was deeply divided by this crisis. The Zealots felt that God wanted them to fight for their freedom, to serve him rather than foreign gods.

The Sadducees were wealthy priests who controlled the Temple, who had given up the idea that God would come to their rescue. They, in fact, had sold out to the Romans and were getting wealthy by stealing the tithed money from the Temple.

In reaction to the Temple’s corruption, the Essenes abandoned worship there and had secluded themselves to live lives of great ceremonial purity. They were waiting for the day when God would send the Messianic “Teacher of Righteousness” who would call them as the “Sons of Light” to battle the “Sons of Darkness,” which, in their minds, were pretty much everyone else.

Many of the common people, like Jesus’ family and Simeon and Anna, concluded that their best hope for the future lay in prayer and careful obedience to God’s word. A popular movement grew up of laypeople who wanted to pray and study together in their own towns, rather than only worshipping in the Temple.

The leaders of this movement were the Pharisees, who were common laborers who distinguished themselves by their devotion to study. You can imagine that at times they might get a little excessive, because they felt like their nation’s life depended on their obedience and piety. But ultimately, Jesus was closest to their way of thinking. And you can imagine how strong people’s feelings were at that time. In times of war, emotions run very high.

Wow. All of a sudden I see why people were longing for a redeemer. And as many times as I’ve piously said, “they were wrong to want a political savior,” I now have great empathy for why they did. Jesus lived in a world as evil as anything in our modern reality, and God sent him right into the middle of the depths of their darkness.

~~~~

Photos: SolLuna; Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash