Understanding the Name Jesus “Christ”

by Lois Tverberg

It is always fascinating and enriching to bring the Hebraic cultural context into understanding the most important, basic words that Christians use. One of the most important is the word “Christ.” What does it mean to call Jesus, “Jesus Christ”? Or, what implications does it have for us to say that Jesus is the “Christ”?

First of all, the word “Christ” comes from christos, a Greek word meaning “anointed.” It is the equivalent of the word moshiach, or “Messiah,” in Hebrew. So, to be the Christ, or Messiah, is to be “the anointed one of God.”

To be anointed is literally to have sacred anointing oil poured on one’s head because God has chosen the person for a special task. Priests and kings were anointed, and occasionally prophets. Kings were anointed during their coronation rather than receiving a crown.

Even though prophets and priests were anointed, the phrase “anointed one” or “the Lord’s anointed” was most often used to refer to a king. For instance, David used it many times to refer to King Saul, even when Saul was trying to murder David and David was on the verge of killing Saul to defend himself:

Far be it from me because of the LORD that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’S anointed (moshiach), to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD’S anointed (moshiach). (1 Sam. 24:6)

So, the main picture of the word “Messiah” or “Christ” as the “anointed one” was of a king chosen by God. While Jesus also has a priestly and a prophetic role, the main picture that word “Messiah” is used for is a king.

Through the Old Testament, we see little hints that God would send a great king to Israel who would someday rule the world. In Genesis, Jacob gives blessings to all of his sons, and of Judah he says,

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. (Gen. 49:10)

This is the first hint that they were expecting a great king to arise out of Israel who would be king over the whole earth. The clearest prophecy about this messianic king who was coming is from King David’s time. David told God that he wanted to build God a “house,” meaning a temple.

God said to him that instead his son Solomon would do that, and then promised that he will build a “house” for him, meaning that God will establish his family line after him. God further promises David that from his family will come a king whose kingdom will have no end:

“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chron. 17:11-14)

This prophecy has been understood as having a double fulfillment — it is first fulfilled in Solomon, who built the temple, but did what God forbade — amassed a great fortune and married foreign wives. His kingdom broke apart a few years after his death.

It also spoke about a “Son of David” who would come, who would have a kingdom without end. This prophecy is the seedbed of all of the messianic prophecies that talk about the “son of David” and the coming messianic king.

Jesus as the Christ

Even though we tend to not pick up on the cultural pictures, the gospels tell us many times that Jesus is this great King who has come. In Matthew 2, the wise men come to bring presents to this king whose star they have seen in the east. This was a fulfillment of Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60, and Psalm 72.

The latter two passages both describe the coming of a great king and describe how representatives from nations everywhere would come to give him tribute:

He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. (Ps. 72:5, 8-11)

Soon after Jesus begins his ministry he proclaims himself as the anointed one (the Christ) in Luke 4 when he says that passage from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)

This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year, a tradition observed when a new king came into power in some middle eastern countries.1 Jesus applied it to himself, arousing a very strong reaction from his audience to his bold claims.

We see yet another picture of Jesus as King when he rode on the donkey into Jerusalem. This was very much a kingly image, often part of the annunciation of a new king, as it was for Solomon in 1 Kings 1:38-39. It is the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, the triumphal entry of the messianic king.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

During Jesus’ trial, the main question he is asked is “Are you the King of the Jews?” and he answers affirmatively:

And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King.” So Pilate asked him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And he answered him and said, “It is as you say.” (Luke 23:2-3)

What are the implications of Jesus as King?

When we think about Jesus’ time on earth, the last thing we think of is of a king who is reigning, but Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:37). Rather, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God, the major focus of his preaching.

The kingdom of God is made up of those who submit their lives to God to reign over them. As the King that God has sent, and of course because he is God, the kingdom of God is Jesus’ kingdom. He speaks about how it is expanding like yeast or mustard seed, as the gospel that he has arrived goes forth and many more accept him as their King. When he returns in glory, all the earth at that time will see that he is King.

Did the people around him see him as a king? The fact that Jesus’ disciples and others who believed in him referred to him as “Lord” suggests that they were giving him great honor, with the understanding that he is the Messianic King.

Throughout the gospels Jesus is addressed with respect by strangers as “rabbi” or “teacher.” Only a few times is he actually addressed using his common name, Jesus, and only by demons (Mark 1:24) as well as a few who didn’t know him. To call Jesus “Lord” is using a term for addressing royalty, like saying “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” It is also a common term for addressing God himself, and has a hint of worshipping Jesus as God.

To use the word “Lord” displays an attitude of obedient submission to a greater power. Jesus seems even to expect that those who call him Lord obey him — he said to his listeners, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).

To call him “Lord” or to call him Jesus “Christ” is to say that he is the King that God has sent, who has a right to reign over us. It is interesting that even though the demons know that he is the Son of God, they refuse to use the word Lord to address him (Luke 4:34, 40)!

This has implications about the basic understanding of what a Christian is. We tend to define ourselves by our creeds and statements of belief, but the very word Christ calls us to more than that. If Christ means King, a Christian is one who considers Jesus his Lord and King, and submits to his reign. Those who are saved have two things: both a belief in the atoning work of Jesus, and a commitment to honor him as their personal Lord and King. As Paul says,

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:9)

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1 See the En-Gedi article, “The Gospel as the Year of Jubilee.” 

Photos: François-Léon Benouville [CC BY-SA 4.0], John Stephen Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], Ikiwaner [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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.

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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

New Light on Jesus’ Last Week

by Lois Tverberg

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

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

Important Data to Consider

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Conflict with the Priests

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

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

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

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

Vineyard grabes vineAt one point during Jesus’ last week, he told a very pointed prophetic story against the priests, the “Parable of the Vineyard” in Luke 20:9-16. In that story, wicked tenants refused to give their landowner his money, and killed his servants and finally his son. The landowner responds by having them put to death.

This story was specifically aimed at the priestly leaders, whose corruption was famous.6 They were robbing God, the landowner, and killing those God sent to enforce his law, including his Son, Jesus. Once again, it pointed toward the priests being destroyed because of their sin. The religious leaders realized that they were being rebuked and wanted to arrest him immediately. Sadly, this parable has been thought by many to be aimed at the Jews in general, rather than the temple leadership of Jesus’ time.

The Passover Plot

When Jesus entered Jerusalem and made his rightful claim to be the Messianic King, he set into motion the events that he knew would lead to his death. He was greatly popular with the people, and because of that, the religious leaders were afraid all the people would follow him (John 11:48). They were obligated to squash all rebellion and keep the peace, so that the Romans would allow them to keep their positions of power.

Moreover, by challenging the temple “racket,” Jesus was bringing the wrath of the powerful priestly syndicate down on his head. The religious leaders couldn’t touch him when he was surrounded by large crowds of followers, but they wanted to end his life. They needed someone who knew how to find him at night when he was in his secluded camp outside of the city, away from the crowds.

Choosing the night of Passover was a perfect scheme, because every religious Jew would be in his home celebrating the Passover meal that started at sundown. The celebration usually went until almost midnight, and most people would immediately go to bed after having a large meal with several glasses of wine.

The streets would be deserted of the throngs that had come for the feast, and it would be easy for Judas to lead the soldiers to where they could seize Jesus. The arrest and trial of Jesus occurred well after midnight on Passover night, because the whole city was asleep, except Jesus’ enemies who needed to convict him before the crowds heard about it.

Who rejected Jesus, and who didn’t?

An important conclusion from this is that the people who called for Jesus’ crucifixion were not the same crowd as the one that hailed him as Messiah the week before. The council that met at such a late hour on a major holiday for a hasty conviction was likely not the entire Sanhedrin, but a quickly assembled group of sympathizers.

The mob that gathered early Passover morning to shout “crucify” consisted of the Sadducean priests, the elders and their supporters. They were the ones who demanded Jesus to be crucified and Barabbas released, because Jesus had offended them by denouncing their corruption.

Later, a large number of people came out to follow him to the cross and mourn for his death, but those who taunted him were the priests and Roman soldiers. Jesus was as popular with the masses at his death as he was one week earlier!

Historically, the stories of Jesus’ Passion have been read with the understanding that the Jews as a whole were acting together to destroy Jesus. This may be because in John’s account, he frequently uses the term “the Jews,” which we assume refers to the whole nation. More likely, as a Jew himself, he was speaking of the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus, or perhaps the “Judeans” — the Jews who lived in and around Jerusalem who rejected the Galilean rabbi.7

John also reported that Jesus had great popularity — so much so that the priests feared that the whole nation would believe in him (John 11:48), and that many even among the leaders believed in him (John 12:42)! By knowing more about the issues and populations of first century Judaism, we can see that those responsible for his death were a few of those in power who saw his kingship as a threat to their own corrupt empires.

We can see that Jesus’ movement was far from rejected by the Jews. Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, on Pentecost, three thousand people became believers, and according to Acts 21:20, soon tens of thousands of Jews would believe in him. One Jewish scholar believes that as many as 50,000 people, including many Pharisees and priests, became believers in Jerusalem alone.8

This was a substantial proportion of the city’s population of that time, suggesting that a very large movement in Judaism was the foundation of the early church. We should therefore read the words in the New Testament about the “Jewish rejection of Jesus” as wondering why every single Jew did not believe in him, rather than that the Jewish people as a whole rejected him. Within a hundred years, the church had become largely Gentile, but the early church was almost entirely Jewish for many years.

In the book of Acts, we read that Annas and the high priests also continued their persecution of Jesus’ followers for several years. They first commissioned Paul to kill members of the church (Acts 9:14, 26:10-12), then later put him on trial for being a believer himself (Acts 25:2).

They also were responsible for the death of Stephen (Acts 6:12 ) and later, James, the brother of Jesus.9 The house of Annas and the rest of the Sadducean aristocracy that controlled the temple finally came to an end when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, just as Jesus predicted.

Prophecies Fulfilled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities” 20.9.1.

10 See the En-Gedi article “Builder of the House.

Photos: Berthold Werner [Public domain], David Köhler on UnsplashUnknown publisher of Bible Card [Public domain]

Gifts for a King! What is the Magi Story all About?

by Lois Tverberg

One of the stories of Christmas that seems to be most cryptic is that of the wise men. Who were they? Where did they come from? Why did they give Jesus the gifts they did? Why are they called magi and what does the word magi mean? Why do we sometimes call them kings? What is the significance of this story, and what does it say about Jesus?

Let’s take a look at the text:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” … On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh. (Matt. 2:1-6, 11)

Expecting a king

The first question that we should ask is, why are they expecting a king, and why is Herod concerned? The answer comes from looking back at some promises from the scriptures. In Micah 4, the prophet told of a messianic age when God would set everything right. Micah said that a king would arise from Bethlehem, the city where David had been born several hundred years before:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for
Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.” …
He will arise and shepherd His flock
In the strength of the LORD,
In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. (Micah 5:2, 4)

This king that would come would be a descendent of David. This comes from a very important promise that God had made to King David, who had displayed great faith and love for God:

“‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.’” (1 Chron. 17:10b-14)

This is the one who Herod feared, this great king that God himself would bring into power.

Prophecies about this king

When a powerful king arises in a country, other kings would give him gifts to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. David and Solomon, Israel’s most powerful kings, formed many alliances with the nations around them. One story from Solomon’s life is even reminiscent of the story of the wise men:

When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan — with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones — she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. … And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. (1 Kings 10:1-2, 10)

Interestingly, other prophecies describe this same thing occurring when the messianic age would come. In Isaiah 60 it says:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. (Is 60:1-4, 6)

Psalm 72 prophesies a similar thing about the messianic king:

He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor. He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. (Ps. 72: 4-5, 8-15) 

Gifts from Sheba

In all three of these stories, royalty from Sheba would come bearing gifts, including gold, precious stones, and spices including frankincense. Where is Sheba? It is at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen is today. It was known in ancient times as possessing great wealth — gold, jewels and spices.

Spices don’t seem very precious to us, but in ancient times, some spices and aromatic oils were worth more than their weight in diamonds because of their rarity and use as perfumes, incense and medicine. Herod gained much of his fantastic wealth by trading in spices and regulating the trading routes.

To transport them over 1,800 miles through the dangerously dry, barren Arabian desert, camels were the only animals that could be used. From these Old Testament prophecies we can get some reason of why the tradition was that royalty would come from the east, and that they would be on camels.

Who are the magi?

In different text translations the travelers are called wise men, magi or astrologers. The term “wise men,” hakamim, is often used in the Old Testament to describe a pagan king’s counselors that are schooled in the magical arts, and are often mentioned with magicians and diviners.

Pagan kings like the Pharaoh in Egypt had magicians who interpreted dreams and imitated Moses’ miracles. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, had wise men and magicians as well. These “spiritual advisors” were respected counselors and probably also acted as ambassadors. When they learned by some kind of divination that a great king had arisen in Israel, most likely the pagan kings had sent them with riches to deliver to this powerful new ruler, to pay homage for their countries.

We are unsure of what type of celestial event the star was or how the wise men interpreted it, but through some spiritual means they learned that a great king had been born in Israel. This says something about the impact the coming of Christ had on the spiritual world. We hear about angels rejoicing, but the news of Jesus’ coming shook the rest of the unseen world as well!

In the scriptures we see other places where God reveals his plans to foreign diviners. In a strange parallel to this story, Balaam, another pagan magician, prophesied about the rise of a king in Israel, and even associates him with a star:

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star rises from Jacob; a scepter comes forth from Israel… Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong. Numbers 24:17-18

Perhaps the reason Herod feared Jesus is he knew this prophecy said that he, an Edomite, would fall to the true king of the Jews.

What are the Frankincense and Myrrh for?

Both frankincense and myrrh are purified from aromatic tree saps into either powders or oils. They would have been gifts more precious than the gold, because of their rarity and the tremendous expense in transporting them: but why were they appropriate for Jesus, this newborn king they had come to worship?

Remember that in biblical times, a king was not “crowned” in a coronation ceremony, he was anointed with oil. This was olive oil blended with myrrh and some other of the most expensive fragrances known, and would be like liquid diamonds in terms of expense.The anointed king would have an aroma that would say that he was the one chosen by God. Kings would wear fragrances other times after they were anointed to show their kingliness. Psalm 45, about King David, says:

Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
With the oil of joy above your fellows.
All Your garments are fragrant
with myrrh and aloes and cassia;
Kings’ daughters are among your noble ladies;
At your right hand stands the queen in gold from Ophir. (Ps 45:7-9)

And about King Solomon it says:

What is this coming up from the wilderness
Like columns of smoke,
Perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
With all scented powders of the merchant?
Behold, it is the carriage of Solomon. (Songs 3:6)

So, perhaps the wise men had brought these precious oils to anoint the king, the prophesied son of David. What is most interesting is that the Hebrew word for anointed is Moshiach, “Messiah.” In Greek, the same word is Christ. So every time we say Jesus Christ, we are calling Jesus the “Anointed King.” So the wise men were proclaiming Jesus as the “anointed one,” the Messiah, the Christ, the King of Kings!

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Photos: Heinrich Hofmann [Public domain]; Inbal Malca on Unsplash; A Peaceful Christmas, [Public domain]

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.

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Photos: SolLuna; Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash

Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

The Jews of Jesus’ day were longing for a messiah, but for many, Jesus didn’t meet their expectations. What were they looking for, from how they read their Scriptures? Understanding the issues at hand can shed much light on Jesus’ teachings, which often were addressing these expectations. By situating his message in its original context, we’ll see how radical it was, and more importantly, its implications for us as members of his kingdom.

The Expectations of the Ancient World

The ancient world thought very differently than modern Westerners do, and God chose to reveal himself and the Messiah in ways that they would understand. In the polytheistic ancient Near East, it was understood that each nation worshipped its own “god” or “gods,” and the prominence of each nation showed the power of its gods. Abu Simbel Egyptian templesGod therefore gained glory when Israel won battles against nations that worshiped false gods.1 A major theme of the Old Testament was how God was using this logic to convince Israel and all other nations that he was the supreme God. They believed that God’s intention was to enlarge his nation and to purify their hearts so that he would have a great kingdom of whole-hearted worshippers.

God’s ultimate goal, according to the prophets, was to expand his reign over all the world until one day no other gods were worshiped anywhere: “The LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zech 14:9).2 One Jewish prayer, the Alenu, which likely precedes the first century AD, expresses that hope this way:

“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.'” 3

Notice how the focus on the coming of God’s kingdom in the Alenu echoes the Lord’s Prayer — that God would establish his kingdom on earth and that his glory be seen throughout the world.

Messiah as King of God’s Kingdom

Along with the idea that God would extend his kingdom over all the earth was the idea that God would send a great king to establish and reign over it, and therefore, the whole world. This great king of Israel, or “anointed one” (mashiach) is the Messiah, which is christos in Greek, or “Christ.” Many messianic passages describe him in just this way:

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. Genesis 49:10

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One (mashiach) … I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. Psalm 2: 2, 8

These prophecies describe an anointed King who rules over the whole world. Grasping this imagery of the Messiah should help us see the many  messianic claims Jesus made during his ministry. In Luke 4, Jesus read the from Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue, “The Lord has anointed (“mashiach”ed) me…” and said that it had been fulfilled in their hearing. By doing so he was boldly claiming to be the Messiah. Also, whenever he spoke about the “kingdom of God” and referred to it as “my kingdom,” he was claiming the same thing. Messiah flagWhen he told his disciples to proclaim that God’s “kingdom was at hand,” it meant that he, God’s true King had arrived on earth. Jesus’ mission was to establish and reign over God’s kingdom, and he often spoke in these terms.4

The Messiah the People Expected: Warrior & Judge

How would God’s king establish his kingdom? One logical conclusion would be that the Messiah would wage war against the idol-worshiping Gentiles and destroy sinners among the Jews. You might be surprised at how many prophecies in their Scriptures sounded like they confirmed their ideas. 

The Messiah was to be a “Son of David” (a descendant of King David), so people expected that just as David had expanded God’s kingdom by going to war, the messianic “Son of David” would too.

The Messiah was expected to be like Moses, who defeated the Egyptians and established Israel as a nation at Mt. Sinai.5 The idea that the Messianic king would lead a rebellion was a prominent expectation, which was why when Jesus admitted to being the Christ, he was accused of stirring up a rebellion against Rome (Luke 23:2-5). After he multiplied the loaves and fish, his audience became convinced that he was giving them “manna” as another prophet-leader like Moses. They responded by wanting to make him king (John 6:14-15) for just this reason.

Many prophecies also anticipate the “Day of the Lord” — a climactic battle between God and his enemies after which the nation of Israel would come into its full glory (Zeph. 1:14-15, Zech. 14:1-3). It should be noted that the “Day of the Lord” was also to be a day of great judgment on all the sinners of Israel:

“The Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts.

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 3:1, 5)

From these and other passages, people expected that the Messianic King would come to bring war and also to judge the people. This made sense because along with leading the army, one of the main roles of a king was to act as supreme judge in the land. (Ps. 72:1-4)

In the New Testament, we see John the Baptist echoing these sentiments as he warns his listeners that Christ was coming in wrath, to chop down every tree that didn’t bear fruit and burn up evildoers like chaff in unquenchable fire (Lk. 3:17).

The Essenes also combined the roles of the Messiah as warrior and judge into one, imagining that he would lead a great war between the “Sons of Light” (their pure community) and the “Sons of Darkness” – sinful Jews and enemy nations that worship other gods.

Another Kind of Messiah – Shepherd, Servant, Jubilee King

Even though the people found evidence for a warrior Messiah in their scriptures, other passages paint a very different picture. More than one passage describes a king who comes in peace to reign over the earth, rather than in war:

Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion will be from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. Zech. 9:9-10 (See also Isaiah 9:6-7)

This passage is familiar to us from the scene in Jesus’ life when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. The fulfillment of this prophecy showed that he was not coming to wage war like so many believed.

Jesus also deliberately applied other passages to himself that explained his mission. He spoke of himself as the “shepherd,” a reference to many messianic passages about a shepherd-king who would re-gather the wandering tribe of Israel and give them a new heart of love and obedience to God (Deut. 30:3-6, Jer. 23:3, Ezek. 34:11). He also spoke about being the “anointed” who was announcing a year of Jubilee — freedom from debt, using debt as a metaphor for sin6 (Is. 61:1-3).

Finally and most importantly, he fulfilled Isaiah 53, which describes God’s “servant” who takes all of the sins of the people on himself, who suffers and dies for their sins to purchase their forgiveness. Jesus came to expand God’s kingdom throughout the world by announcing forgiveness to all who would repent, rather than judgment on sinners.

 

The Critical Difference Between these Ideas

People often assume that Jesus was rejected by his listeners because they wanted a “political” messiah, as opposed to a “spiritual” messiah. But the reason many did not accept Jesus was because they were looking for a Messiah to come with judgment on the enemies of God, and he came with an offer of forgiveness and peace instead. It wasn’t that they hadn’t read the scriptures, but rather that Jesus didn’t fit their reading.

They expected the kingdom of God to be established by killing everyone who wasn’t righteous. But instead, God would gain a kingdom of pure-hearted followers, not by destroying all the impure, but by purifying sinners and atoning for their sins himself. The Messiah would indeed come again someday in judgment, but for now he was extending an invitation of forgiveness to everyone who would take it.

ColiseumIt is easy for us to condemn the people of Jesus’ time, but seeing more of the situation can give us empathy for them. The suffering of the Jews in Jesus’ day under the Roman Empire was as extreme as it was for those in Nazi Germany, according to historians. Torture and public crucifixion were commonplace, thousands were murdered, and taxes were overwhelming.

The Jews who were most faithful were persecuted most harshly, and only those who had “sold out” by serving the Romans prospered — the tax collectors and the corrupt Temple priests that colluded with them to exploit the faithful Jews.7

In their anguish, the Jews yearned for God to establish his kingdom of justice by purifying their nation from corruption and freeing it from their Roman persecutors. Even Jesus’ disciples were convinced that this was Jesus’ mission. After his resurrection they asked him “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ message was extremely difficult for his audience to hear — that only by letting go of vengeance could they enter God’s true kingdom.

 

The Challenge of the Kingdom

Ironically, the only people that would find a forgiving Messiah appealing were the “sinners” themselves. When prostitutes and tax collectors heard about a Messiah who didn’t bring judgment but rather forgiveness, it must have been the greatest news in the world to them.

The rest of his listeners must have felt just the opposite. As the innocent victims of Roman oppression, they saw themselves as the “righteous ones” who longed for vindication. They yearned for a Messiah who judged and defeated their enemies, rather than one who would forgive their sins but then demand that they forgive those who had wronged them.

The most profound thing about the “merciful kingdom” that Christ proclaimed was what it said about God. The ancient world believed that the gods of the nations battled against each other to expand their kingdom, but the true God came to suffer and die for the sins of his people instead. This God was a god of mercy and long-suffering love, who wanted sinners to be forgiven rather than being destroyed in judgment.

To truly grasp the kingdom message of our Messiah, we must be fully aware of our sinfulness and willing to ask for forgiveness, and to forgive those who have wronged us as well.

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1 When God sent the plagues to bring his people out of Egypt, for instance, each was targeted at an Egyptian god to show that God was supreme (Ex. 12:12). Many other Old Testament stories display God defeating false gods, like the fall of the Dagon idol before the ark (1 Sam 5:2) and the contest between Elijah and the Baal prophets (1 Ki 18:21).

2 Revelation also includes this imagery of the final climax to history when it says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Anointed One); and He will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)

3 The Alenu prayer is recited three times each day at the end of the synagogue service. Ironically, even though Jesus may have prayed this ancient prayer, it is now recited silently because Christians persecuted Jews who prayed it, thinking it was said against them. For more on its history, read jewishencyclopedia.com‘s entry on “Alenu.” 

4 Other stories in Jesus’ life are included to show that he was the Messianic king. The visit of the Magi fulfilled the prophecies that kings of other nations would bring tribute to him (Is. 60, Ps. 72). The Holy Spirit descending on him at his baptism was reminiscent of how God’s spirit fell on anointed kings like Saul (1 Sam 10:10) and David (1 Sam 16:13). Also, see the En-Gedi article, “What Does the Name Jesus “Christ” Mean?

5 Especially during this time of great oppression under the Romans, the people looked for another Moses to set them free from their oppressors.

6 See the En-Gedi article, “The Gospel as a Year of Jubilee.”

7 For more on the corruption of the Temple priesthood, see “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week.”

For more on Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God, see the En-Gedi Article “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News.

Another excellent article about how Jews and Christians have understood messianic prophecy is by Glenn Miller

Photos: Ali Hegazy on Unsplash, Mabdalla [Public domain], Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash

The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!

by Lois Tverberg

Throughout Jesus’ time on earth, the focus of his teaching was the Kingdom of God. In fact, he says, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). Even though Jesus’ ministry focused on it, many things he says about it leave us scratching our heads. Is it now or in the future? Why is it so important to him? Why is it good news? Once again, having a knowledge about Jesus’ first century Hebrew culture will greatly clarify his teaching.

Kingdom of Heaven & Kingdom of God

First of all, we read two different phrases in the gospels: “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.” In Matthew, “kingdom of heaven” is used, while in Mark and Luke, “kingdom of God” is used. This is because in Jesus’ day, and even now, Jews show respect for God by not pronouncing his Heaven imagery name, but substituting another word. For example, the prodigal son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight” (Luke 15:21). So, Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct “kingdom of heaven” while Mark and Luke are explaining that “heaven” is a reference to God. The actual words that came out of Jesus’ mouth were probably “Malchut shemayim” (mahl-KUT shuh-MAH-eem), which was a phrase common in rabbinic teaching in his day. Malchut, which we translate as “kingdom,” actually refers more to the actions of a king — his reign and authority, and anyone who is under his authority. Shemayim is Hebrew for “heavens.” A simple way of translating it would be “God’s reign,” or “how God reigns” or “those God reigns over.”

But what does it really mean?

Apparently, the discussion of Jesus’ day was focused on how and when God would establish his kingdom on earth. They were thinking of prophecies like those in Zechariah that say that one day,

The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. (Zech. 14:9)

We may wonder why they felt that God wouldn’t be king from the beginning of creation, but they believed that as long as the world was filled with evil and other nations worshipped other gods, the people of the world refused to acknowledge him as its king. Especially in Jesus’ day this feeling was very strong. God’s people, Israel, were suffering at the hands of the Romans. They longed for the day that God would come to save his people and fully establish his reign over the earth.

The reason the ministry of Jesus focuses on the kingdom was because it was the role of the Messiah to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Messianic passages in the Old Testament focus on how God was going to anoint a king from the people of Israel to reign over the whole world, and that he would bring God’s kingdom to earth (see Is. 11, Ps. 2, 72, Dan. 2 and others). Because Jesus was the Messiah, he was describing his own mission as the Anointed King sent by God.

We can imagine that there would be much speculation in Jesus’ time about how God would establish his reign over the whole world. Obviously, they thought, when the Messiah came, he would establish God’s reign by conquering the enemies of Israel. They read many prophecies about the Messiah that were images of a mighty king who defeated his foes and then took the throne, for instance:

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One (Messiah, in Hebrew). … Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill. … You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery. (Ps. 2:2,5-6, 9)

And, they read about the great and dreadful “day of the Lord” where he would come to judge the enemies of Israel, and they longed for that day. Messianic prophecy also talks about a “suffering servant” and a “Prince of Peace,” but the people of Jesus’ day expected that the Messiah would bring God’s judgment. This attitude was pervasive in Jesus’ time. The Essenes formed ascetic communities in the desert and called themselves the “sons of light,” waiting for the great war when God would destroy the “sons of darkness,” which was everyone except them. Even Jesus’ disciples were convinced that this was Jesus’ mission. They asked him “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And, in the words of John the Baptist, we hear him warning his listeners that because the Messiah was here, the judgment of God was imminent:

Boy with axe cutting tree

Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

His winnowing fork is in his hand to thoroughly clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:9, 17).

Jesus’ Teaching About the Kingdom

Jesus teaching about the kingdom was to correct his people’s expectations of his messianic role, and even their understanding of God’s nature itself. Those around him wanted God to reign over the earth by destroying anyone who didn’t acknowledge him as king. Jesus, in contrast, says that God would establish his kingdom on earth, not by judgment, but by mercy to sinners, who would be reconciled with God through Jesus’ atoning death. This is the fundamental message of Jesus — the good news of the kingdom of God is that the Messiah had come, and was building his kingdom by bringing forgiveness to anyone who would repent, rather than bringing God’s judgment to the world.

If we see this as Jesus’ message, it gives insight on parables about the kingdom that are hard to understand otherwise. One seems to be directly intended to correct John the Baptist’s picture of the Messiah coming in judgment to establish God’s kingdom. We hear from John that “the axe is already laid at the root of the tree“, ready to chop it down because it doesn’t bear fruit. But Jesus tells the parable:

A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down. (Luke 13:6-9)

Vineyard grabes vineThe point of this parable is to emphasize God’s mercy rather than his imminent judgment. Jesus seems to be speaking about the same tree that John was, only here the tree is given another chance, rather than being chopped down. Was John the Baptist wrong about Jesus? No, actually, because Jesus will eventually return in judgment, just as John said. When Jesus speaks about his return, he says that then he will come to separate the sheep from the goats, and judge the world. John was just premature in his timing, as were Jesus’ disciples. This is probably why John asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” He was expecting Jesus to bring the judgment of God, but this was to come later.

What are the implications of Jesus’ teaching?

Even though the main difference between Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of God and those around him was in the timing of the judgment, this difference had profound implications for the kind of kingdom it is, and the character of God himself.

The picture that most had about the kingdom is that it would be established through God’s judgment. It seems to be a logical answer to the problem of evil. In one sudden event, God would assert his power and vanquish his enemies, the “wicked” of the nations around them, and those of their own nation who were “sinners.” Only the righteous would be left to be God’s Kingdom. They assumed that they were the righteous that would survive the judgment, and that their enemies would not survive. This was good news to those who were the “righteous,” who were on God’s side, because they would have the victory.

Jesus utterly disagrees with this. He says that God’s kingdom had come to earth, but it would be a time of healing and forgiveness. He said that his kingdom would start out small like a mustard seed, but would grow as people would accept Christ and enthrone God as their King. In Jesus’ understanding, a person was brought into the kingdom of God when the person decided to accept God as his King, and it is something that happens in a person’s heart, not a political movement or visible display of God’s power. His idea was very close to that of other rabbis who said that when a person committed himself daily to love God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength, that he had “received upon himself the kingdom of heaven.” This kingdom would be invisible, like leaven that some how works its way through bread to make it rise. We can hear this in this conversation:

Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20 – 21)

Jesus is saying through this that he was the Messiah, and he truly had brought God’s kingdom to earth. But it would be a very different kind of kingdom because it would grow through forgiveness of sin rather than judgment. It was good news to the sinners who knew that if God came in judgment, they would be the ones to be judged!

Also, because the kingdom was growing slowly by God’s mercy toward sinners, it would be like like wheat that grows up among “tares,” or weeds (Matt 13:24-30), representing evil. When the tares were found growing in the field, instead of pulling them out, the farmer waited until the end. The farmer was merciful, preferring to leave the weeds alone in his desire not to harm the wheat. Once again, this contrasts with John’s saying that the Messiah would come to winnow — meaning to separate the wheat from the chaff, or good from evil, for destruction. Again, Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom had truly come to the earth, but evil would not be ended, so it would not be a kind of utopia. Rather, it would grow in the midst of evil because of God’s mercy, so that there was still hope for the enemies if they chose to repent and enter.

If we have this understanding, many of Jesus’ sayings make more sense. His kingdom is made up of the poor in spirit, those who know they are guilty of sin, who come to God for forgiveness. The tax collectors and prostitutes were the first to enter Jesus’ kingdom of mercy, and the last were the outwardly religious who really were hoping for God to judge their enemies. The merciful, who do not want to see God’s judgment come on others, are shown mercy themselves. One day, the kingdom would come in power when Jesus returns to judge, but he would wait as long as possible to allow as many to enter as can.

Wheat field chaff

Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of God gives us a profoundly different understanding of God’s character. It shows that God is, at his very heart, merciful and wanting no one to perish. He teaches us to love our enemies, because he himself is merciful toward his enemies, giving them time to change their ways. It is easy to see what our response must be to Jesus’ message. We must examine ourselves, know that no one is righteous in the eyes of God, and repent and receive God as our King. Only because the Messianic King came to die to establish his Kingdom, rather than to kill his enemies, can we, his former enemies become members of his Kingdom and children of his Father.

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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.

 

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

Our Father

by Lois Tverberg

“This, then, is how you should pray: `Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” Matthew 6:9

Jesus begins to teach his disciples how to pray by addressing God as “Our Father.” He was not unique in this respect – other Jewish prayers of the day began with, “Our Father, Our King…” which is “Avinu, Malkenu….” This address encompasses both God’s love and his sovereignty, like Jesus’ prayer does, describing both God’s fatherly love, but also his holiness. The plural pronoun “our” is used out of respect for God, to not be too intimate.

The thing that is unique about Jesus is not how he told his disciples to address God, but how he addressed God himself, as “My Father.” No one else in all the Bible refers to God as “My Father.” There is an interesting reason for this. The Jews had a tradition about the Messiah that was related to the key Messianic promise that God gave to King David:

The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. (2 Samuel 7:11-14)

From this prophecy, they understood that when the Messiah came, he would have a relationship with God so close that when he prayed, he would refer to God as “My Father.”

This gives us a fascinating insight into an early story of Jesus’ life. When Jesus was twelve and his parents found him in the temple, Jesus said, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) This was the first time that Jesus made a messianic reference to himself, showing that he understood who he was since childhood.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he refers to God as “my father,” and every time he used those words, his listeners would have heard it as a bold claim to be the One who God had promised would come.

Good News to the Poor

by Lois Tverberg

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed (“messiah”ed) me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. Isaiah 61:1-2, quoted in Luke 4:18-19

Poor womanJesus stood up in in the synagogue at Nazareth and quoted the words of Isaiah 61, and then said, “Today these words are fulfilled in your hearing.” He was applying to himself the role of the “Anointed” one, the Messiah, who was bringing a year of Jubilee, “the year of the LORD’s favor.”

When we hear about a year of Jubilee as a picture of the coming of Christ, we think of it as a joyous year of celebration. We may think about how no one could till their land that year, so it sounds like a wonderful time of ease and rest, like heaven itself. Or we may think of how wonderful it would be to have all our debts forgiven.

The thing that is puzzling is that it describes the Jubilee as “good news to the poor.” Why wouldn’t the Jubilee be good news to everyone? If we look at the observance of the Jubilee year, it really would only be a delight for the poorest people in the land. For the rich who had bought land, they would have lost their holdings by giving it back to the original owners.

For all, it would have been a time of relative lack – they still had to feed their families, but the fields were not to be planted. That meant that for that one year, the farm-based society had to live on savings, or else glean from what grew up on its own, like the poor people did all the time. The day laborer, who earned barely enough each day to feed his family, would find that year especially difficult because he would not be able to get work on farms.

The only person who would greatly benefit from the Jubilee is the poorest of the poor, who had become so impoverished that he had to borrow (which was only done in desperation), or was forced to sell his land, or even be thrown in debtor’s prison. For him, he experienced the greatest joy at being released from debt that was strangling him.

That can actually teach us about Jesus’ mission, because if we see that debt was a metaphor for sin in the time of Jesus, we see his true mission on earth. It was only the truly poor in spirit who wanted mercy from the Messiah. Most of the society was looking for a Messiah who would come as military King who would judge and destroy their enemies and liberate them. They saw themselves as basically righteous, and their enemies as the sinners of the world. Only those who recognized their own sinfulness would see the great debt they were in, and would want a messiah to come who would come with forgiveness for both them and their enemies. For these, Jesus truly had come with the good news of Jubilee.


Photo: Augustus Binu

A Night of Watching

Vigil

by Lois Tverberg

It was a night of watching for the LORD to bring them out from the land of Egypt; and so on this night all Israel is to keep the vigil to the LORD for generations to come. Exodus 12:42 (NET)

Most know that the Jewish Passover celebration focuses on remembering how God redeemed his people from Egypt, but it also looks forward to God’s final redemption in the coming of the Messiah. The command to remember the deliverance from Egypt is clear to us, but it might be a mystery as to where Jewish people find the idea that they should look forward to redemption as well.

VigilThe answer is in Exodus 12:42, above, that says that all Israel is to keep vigil for generations to come. They saw this as meaning that they should be watching for what great thing that God will do next. Passover is referred to as a “night of vigil,” of keeping watch. Passover begins with the setting of the sun, as all days do in the Hebrew calendar. As the feast day begins, people are mindful of the need to watch for what God will be doing through the night and in the day ahead. The traditional way to observe this command is to open the front door of the house and look out – to show that you are standing alert. Typically, one of the children open the door to see if Elijah is there, because Malachi says that he will come before the Messiah:

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty…”See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. Mal. 3:1, 4:5

In Jesus’ time, of course, he explains that John the Baptist fulfilled the role of the “Elijah” who would come before him.

It is fascinating, in light of this tradition, that Christ really did complete his mission of dying for our sins on the very day that they were looking for their redeemer to come. Late at night, just hours after the Passover meal Jesus was arrested in the garden, and in the wee hours he stood trial. Before the next day had fully begun, he was being led out to death. Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 26:40 take on special meaning to me now:

“Could you not keep watch with me for just one hour?”


Photo: A01333441jarh