Since Jesus tells us to make disciples out of all nations (and be disciples ourselves), we will be enriched to understand what exactly was expected of a disciple.
The Elijah/Elisha relationship served as a model during Jesus’ time of what was expected of the rabbi/disciple relationship. God told Elijah to chose Elisha to succeed him as prophet, and when Elisha was called, Elisha left everything to live with and serve Elijah. Let’s look at Elijah and Elisha’s relationship:
So he (Elijah) departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, while he was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth. And Elijah passed over to Elisha and threw his mantle on him. He left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” So he returned from following him, and took the pair of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the implements of the oxen, and gave it to the people and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah and became his attendant. (1 Kings 19:19 – 21)
When Elisha asks to say good-bye to his family, Elijah’s responds angrily, because Elisha was delaying his answer to the calling that God had given him. Elisha responded by burning his plow to show his total commitment to following Elijah, even over supporting his own family. Compare this with a scene from when Jesus was speaking to a would-be disciple:
Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9: 61-62)
There are interesting parallels here. A potential disciple asks to delay his commitment to following Jesus for the sake of family, and Jesus informs him that he needed to abandon everything to be a part of the kingdom of God. By alluding to the plow, he is recalling the scene when Elisha makes the same request of Elijah.
A disciple was supposed to be utterly devoted to his rabbi, to love him like his own father. The relationship wasn’t about academic learning, like a student taking notes from a teacher. A disciple was supposed to serve his rabbi and emulate him in his way of life, like an apprentice serving a master. We see this in Elisha when it says he became Elijah’s attendant, his mesharet (1 Kings 19:21), who humbly served his needs.
We also learn about how devoted and loyal Elisha was to Elijah. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah ordered Elisha to stay behind when he knew God was about to take him. Nothing Elijah said could make Elisha turn away. Elisha even called Elijah “father” when he saw him go up in a heavenly chariot.
If we see this as a model for disciples of Jesus, it casts light on scenes in the gospels. Peter’s declaration, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” would have been a reasonable thing for a disciple to say to his beloved master, the rabbi. In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. When Peter denies Jesus he would have felt terrible, because a disciple would never betray or abandon his master.
We also see this dynamic when Jesus teaches them about service by washing their feet. As his disciples, it was their job to serve him, not the other way around. He was teaching them a great lesson in humility, that the one most deserving of being served is serving himself, while they were busy arguing who is the greatest.
Another thing we learn from Elijah and Elisha was that Elisha’s goal was to be like Elijah, and he asked for the same prophetic spirit Elijah had to be poured out on him (2 Kings 2:9). A disciple didn’t want to just know what his master knows, he wanted to have the same abilities and passion to serve God, too. Elisha served Elijah to see how Elijah lived, and to learn to have the same wisdom in each situation. Ultimately, Elisha became Elijah’s spiritual successor.
This is another parallel between Elijah/Elisha and Jesus/disciples stories. After Elijah is taken up into heaven, his mantle falls on Elisha, and Elisha receives the ability through the Spirit to do miracles as Elijah did. In the New Testament, a few weeks after the disciples see Jesus ascend to heaven, they receive the Spirit and become able to do miracles themselves as well. We as Jesus’ disciples receive spiritual gifts that allow us to continue serving as the first church did.
Through the lens of the relationship between Elijah and Elisha, we see many applications for our own lives as Jesus’ disciples. We are supposed to be utterly devoted to serving and following Jesus, to love him more than our own families and our livelihood. Our goal cannot just be to learn all about him, or treat him as an academic teacher, but to become like him ourselves.
Jesus often uses phrases or even single words to allude to teachings in the Old Testament. He could do this because he lived in a biblically knowledgeable Jewish culture. People were familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, because they lived in an oral culture in which people learned the text largely by heart.
Jesus’ culture also had the habit of public discussion about the Bible. Traveling rabbis would teach in each village, and the town’s conversation would revolve around Scripture and the latest teaching. As odd as it sounds to us, many cultures throughout world history have put religion in the center of public culture, so that people are widely literate about religious matters. It has only been in the twentieth century that many societies have become publicly secular, and people ignorant about faith issues.
So Jesus, like others, had a sophisticated teaching style that expected his audience to be familiar enough with the scriptures that they knew the references he was making. By knowing the reference, people would know the entire context and hear more complex ideas behind his words. He wasn’t hiding secret messages — actually, he expected people to catch his allusions. In medieval times, the Jews referred to this technique of hinting as “Remez,” but the practice predated Jesus.
We actually do the same thing today. When a headline says “War in Afghanistan May Be Another Vietnam,” it is assuming that everyone knows the history of the Vietnam War. Without saying anything but the word “Vietnam,” people immediately know the reference and have an emotional reaction to that difficult time in US history.
Or, when we refer to a government scandal as “Travel-gate” or “File-gate” we are subtly alluding to the Watergate scandal. Just by adding that half word, we hint that the issue is a major White House scandal that will cast a shadow over the presidency. Even in the last sentence, you need to know which white house I am talking about! These allusions are a way of quickly referring to common cultural knowledge.
We can find many, many of these in the gospels. Here’s one passage from Mark where Jesus uses this technique:
He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations‘? But you have made it a robber’s den.” (Mark 11:15 -17)
Jesus is using two quotes from the Old Testament prophets about the Temple. One is “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” which comes out of a text from Isaiah 56:
Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Sabbath And holds fast My covenant; Even those I will bring to My holy mountain And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations. (Is. 56:6-7)
The other comes from Jeremiah 7:
Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations? “Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the LORD. “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. (Jer. 7:9-12)
Both of the passages share a common subject — God’s “house,” the Temple — in fact, in some ancient texts, both passage use the exact phrase “my house.”
Rabbis would look for an exact word match in order to link two texts together. This technique was called gezerah sheva. Another example is with the two texts “You shall love the Lord with all of your heart…”(Deut. 6:5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). When they are quoted together it is because the word “Ve’ahavta” (You shall love) is in common between them. Rabbis would assume that one passage would shed light on the other, or would combine the two to teach a new thing.
So what is Jesus saying about the Temple in the passage in Mark? If we just read the surface meaning, Jesus says that the Temple is supposed to be a place where people pray, not a place where people do business, and maybe unscrupulously too. The Isaiah passage, however, describes God’s greatest goal for the temple: that it would be a place of worship not just for Jews but for all the nations of the world.
The Jeremiah passage describes the worst possible abuse, where people are being openly wicked, and then fleeing to the temple because they figure God would protect it from destruction. It says that he let the temple be destroyed at Shiloh, and then threatens God would do it again if they didn’t repent.
Some think Jesus was particularly angry that the sellers were crowding the Gentiles out of the court of the Gentiles, the area of the Temple where foreigners could worship the true God.
However, the message may be even stronger than that. It is known from Josephus and other ancient historians that the Jewish temple authorities were deeply corrupt in Jesus’ time. They profited from the sale of sacrificial animals, extorted pay from the other priests, and had people who opposed them killed. Several of Jesus’ sayings were about the destruction of the Temple because of its corruption, and in Mark 14 we read his prediction that the Temple would be destroyed.
Jesus is very likely using Jeremiah 7 to hint that the selling in the Temple is only one symptom of great corruption that would ultimately lead to God’s judgement. “Den of robbers” doesn’t just refer to the sellers, it refers to the wicked temple authorities.
Since we know that we put cultural “hints” in our own conversation, we should expect that Jesus would in his words too. Certainly by learning more about his first century culture we can understand Jesus better.
We should take joy to see that the source of Jesus’ “hints” is something that we already have at our fingertips — the Old Testament. This should challenge all of us to learn the Scriptures he read, if we want to understand Jesus and follow him.
In all that I’ve learned about Jesus through understanding his first century Jewish culture, one of the things that has enriched my study most is learning about Jesus’ habit of hinting to his scriptures. His words are peppered with quotes and allusions to the Old Testament.
Sometimes his references are obvious, and sometimes only a word or two. But because most of his audiences would have known scripture by memory, when he does allude to it, we can be pretty sure they would have caught it, and that the reference may have been important to his point.
Fifty years ago, many scholars assumed that the audiences in the Galilee to whom Jesus preached was religiously ignorant peasants, perhaps Gentile rather than Jewish. Newer research has revealed that first-century Galilean Jewish villages were very observant. Their residents ate strictly kosher food and often traveled to Jerusalem to observe the feasts. Several well-respected rabbis, whose discussions were on a very high level, came from the Galilee. These teachers traveled from village to village, and many townsfolk would come out to listen to them. As a result, people in that highly religious area were generally quite knowledgeable about scripture.
Jesus participated in these scholarly discussions brilliantly and often pulled together Scripture texts in beautiful ways to make a point. Often we miss this if we don’t have a strong knowledge of the Old Testament. He sometimes quoted just part of a verse and the rest of the passage he was hinting at would have an even stronger message. This was common practice in his day, and is still practiced by Jewish teachers up to the present.
Most intriguingly, some of the most powerful statements that Jesus made about his mission as Messiah came through the hints that he made to his Scriptures. For example, we read about a conversation between John the Baptist’s disciples and Jesus in Matt 11:
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matt. 11: 2-6)
On the surface this text is fairly understandable, but underneath there is more going on. In John’s ministry he tells people to repent, because after him would come the one who would bring judgement. He emphasized the fulfillment of prophetic passages like Malachi 3 which say:
“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…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. 3:1-2, 5)
From this passage, many focused on “one who will come,” which they understood as the Messiah who would destroy the wicked and those who oppressed Israel. Sitting in prison, John may have been discouraged and wanting to see Jesus begin to fulfill his role of judge.
Jesus answers John by pointing out the things that he is doing (the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor) that fulfill other passages about the Messiah who is coming:
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. (Isaiah 35: 4-6)
And in the very messianic passage about the anointed Messiah,
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… (Isaiah 61:1)
By using these passages, he is explaining to John that he is doing exactly what was predicted in the scriptures about the “one who is to come,” and that his ministry is one of healing and forgiveness for those who will listen now, but that judgement would come later. Jesus could be quite sure John knew the reference, and his point would not have been lost on him.
I am the Good Shepherd
Another example of Jesus hinting from his scriptures is in John 10:11 when he says that he is the good shepherd:
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11)
We think of the good shepherd as a soft, warm image, and may think of Psalm 23. But Jesus was most likely also thinking of the description of the “good shepherd” in Ezekiel 34 which says:
‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-16 )
We can hear in this passage Jesus’ parable about the shepherd looking for his lost sheep, and seeking and saving the lost. We can also hear hints of his sayings about judging the flock and separating the sheep from the goats. Earlier in the passage there is also a very strong judgement against the “bad shepherds,” and it is reminiscent of Jesus’ strong condemnation of the corrupt religious leaders of his time:
This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. Therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2, 4, 9-10)
After Jesus gets done speaking, once more an uproar starts over what he claims. The people he was speaking to would have recognized his hints to the “good shepherd” of Ezekiel 34, and would have known its rich background and its strong implications. His description of himself as shepherd is much more powerful if you understand the scriptures behind it! They would have known that he was claiming to be the “one who is to come,” the “good shepherd,” the Messiah.
When I first discovered Jesus’ habit of “hinting,” I was surprised by his expectations of his audience, that they knew their Scriptures, our Old Testament. I was convicted too, because I didn’t grow up learning much about it. And relieved, because he was not quoting from some esoteric text lost to us today. The scripture that Jesus refers to are already in our hands, we just need to go study them. Many study Bibles today that have references in the margins for texts and quotations. I hope that as as you read through the Bible, you will find many new insights as you put Jesus’ words back in the context of the scriptures he was quoting.
A good place to find more articles on Jesus’ habit of “hinting” are the articles found on the Jerusalem Perspective website. “Remember Shiloh” by Joseph Frankovic is a good example of Jesus’ scripture quoting technique.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:19)
Jesus’ final words were those of what we call the Great Commission — to make disciples of the whole world. But what is a disciple? The ancient, Hebraic picture Jesus had of raising disciples was unique to his Jewish culture. By learning about this practice, we gain fresh insight into how Jesus intended that we fulfill his command.
Jesus lived in a deeply religious culture that valued biblical understanding more than anything else. To become a great rabbi was the highest goal possible, and just to be a disciple of a famous rabbi was an honor. All boys studied and memorized the scriptures until age twelve, and then learned a trade after that. Only a small minority could keep studying, and only a very few were able to go on to learn with a rabbi.
Rabbis acted as wandering expositors who taught in synagogues and homes, and outdoors when a crowd gathered. They taught general audiences, and also had a small band of disciples who lived with them and followed them everywhere. They traveled from town to town teaching, because no mass-communication was available.
They often practiced a trade of their own, but when traveling they were dependent on the hospitality of the community. Indeed, it was forbidden to charge money to teach, but people were expected to support them and invite them into their homes.
Even to the present day, Judaism retains a tradition of discipleship. When Jewish rabbis are ordained, they are commissioned to “Raise up many disciples.” This is the first verse of Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers), from the Mishnah, the Jewish compendium of laws and sayings from around Jesus’ time. Texts like this have much to say about the rabbinic method for raising disciples. Another passage that describes discipleship is this:
Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily. (Pirke Avot 1:4)
This text casts light on several stories from Jesus’ ministry in the gospels. Mary, Martha and Lazarus opened their home to Jesus in the tradition of showing hospitality toward rabbis and disciples. Their house would also have served as a place for meetings for him to teach small groups.
We also read that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” to learn from him (Luke 10:39), which may be the sense of the phrase “cover yourself in the dust of their feet.” The phrase may also have meant to walk behind him to listen to him teach, as Jesus’ disciples would have done. On the unpaved roads in Israel, they literally would have been covered in their rabbi’s dust.
What was expected of rabbis and disciples?
Rabbis were expected not only to be greatly knowledgeable about the Bible, but to live exemplary lives to show that they had taken the scriptures to heart. The objective of their teaching was to instill in their disciples both the knowledge and desire to live by God’s word. It was said, “If the teacher is like an angel of the Lord, they will seek Torah from him. If not, they will not seek Torah from him” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 15b).
The disciple’s goal was to gain the rabbi’s understanding, and even more importantly, to become like him in character. It was expected that when the student became mature enough, he would take his rabbi’s teaching out to the community, add his own understanding to it, and raise up disciples of his own.
A disciple was expected to leave family and job behind to join the rabbi in his austere lifestyle. They would live twenty-four hours a day together, walking from town to town, teaching, working, eating, and studying. As they lived together, they would discuss the scriptures and apply them to their lives.
The disciples were supposed to be the rabbi’s servants, submitting to his authority while they served his needs. Indeed, the word “rabbi” means “my master,” and was a term of great respect, the same title that a slave would use to address his owner.
This sheds new light on the story of when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Jesus was entitled to having them wash his feet, not the other way around! By his actions he was teaching them a great lesson in humility — that the one most deserving of being served is himself serving, while they were arguing who is the greatest. Jesus was using typical rabbinic technique: he didn’t just lecture, he used his own behavior as an example.
The rabbi-disciple relationship was very intimate. The rabbi was considered to be closer than a father to his disciples, and disciples were sometimes called “sons.” When Peter said “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you,” he was reflecting the deep love and commitment that disciples had for their rabbi (Matt. 26:35).
In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. Jesus’ insistence that his disciples leave everything behind to follow him would not have been considered extreme in that culture. They held up the image of Elisha as a model of a disciple’s commitment, who burned his plow and left everything to become Elijah’s disciple (1 Kings 19). After Elisha had lived with Elijah and served him for many years, he received Elijah’s authority to go out as his successor, as the disciples did from Jesus.
What light does this shed on the Great Commission?
Jesus’ eastern method of discipleship gives us a new picture of what he called us to do. Our Western model focuses mainly on the gospel as information, and our goal is to be a person of correct understanding. We focus mainly on spreading information about Jesus, not on living our life like him and inspiring others to do the same.
While it is important to teach and defend truth, Jesus’ method of discipleship is much more than that. He began his Kingdom by walking and living with disciples, to show them how to be like him. Then they went out and made disciples, doing their best to imitate Jesus and show others by their own example.
Jesus expects his kingdom will be built in this way: as each person grows in maturity, they live their lives transparently before others, counseling them on what they have learned about following Christ. The kingdom is built primarily through these close relationships of learning, living and teaching.
Paul uses the same model of discipleship in his ministry. He said,
…in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Cor 4:15-17)
We can hear that Paul’s goal for the Corinthians is that they become disciples, who change their lives to be like Christ, not just learn the correct beliefs. Using rabbinic method, he likens himself as a father to them, and he send his disciple Timothy, who he calls “his son.” He wants them to learn by the example of Timothy about his own way of life, which is a reflection of Jesus’ teaching. Paul is using this “whole person” method of evangelism to transform their lives, not just their minds, to reflect the truth.
Through this model of discipleship, we see that Jesus isn’t just interested in having our minds. He wants our hearts and lives too. Once our lives reflect what our minds believe, then the belief has actually reached our hearts. Then our passion for following him becomes a loud witness that inspires others to do the same.
He [Jesus] got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to push out a little from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Push out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Teacher, we have worked all night and caught nothing! However, if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they enclosed a great school of fish … when Simon Peter saw it, he fell at Jesus’ feet and said, “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:3–6, 8)
Understanding more about ancient fishing on the Sea of Galilee allows us to paint, in vivid detail, this scene of one of the first miracles of Jesus’ ministry as it occurred, likely during winter on the lake shore at Heptapegon near Capernaum.1
Peter and the other fishermen were using a trammel net to catch musht (Tilapia galilea; “St. Peter’s fish”). They fished at night and stopped their work at dawn because in the light of day the fish could see the netting. Before the fishermen turned in for the day, they carefully washed their nets and hung them to dry. If the linen nets were not dried promptly after use they would rot in a short time.
From the gospel account we learn that Jesus arrived at the lake shore while the fishermen were still washing their nets, and immediately got into one of the boats and began to teach. If the washing of the trammel nets took place shortly after dawn, then Jesus must have begun teaching very early in the morning.2
Jewish sources support this picture of the diligence and faithfulness of teachers in Israel during this period, and the people’s eagerness to learn Torah. From rabbinic literature one learns that the rabbis taught in every conceivable venue and at any time of the day or night.
Here we have an example of a rabbi teaching in the early morning, perhaps as early as 7:00, from a boat moored offshore. A crowd large enough to cause Jesus to use a boat as a teaching platform had gathered, despite the early hour.
The Tough Work of the Fisherman
Was it just by chance that Jesus chose fishermen as disciples, or had their difficult work especially prepared them for the task for which they were chosen? The Sea of Galilee fishermen were tough. Their bodies were wet much of the time, even in the winter, for it is during the winter when fishing is at its best on the Sea of Galilee — the musht season is in the winter, as is the sardine season. The winter is also the rainy season in Israel, and it often rained on the fishermen during those long winter nights when they were out on the lake.3 (In those days there were no rubberized rain gear like today’s fishermen wear!)
The fisherman’s work was also difficult physically, entailing rowing to and from the fishing sites, hauling in heavy nets and lifting catches of fish. Cast-net fishermen had to dive under the water repeatedly to retrieve their nets. Most fishermen worked all night and slept during the day. We can image that a typical fishing village like Capernaum was quiet until 12:30 or 1:00 p.m., with mothers shushing noisy children or any dog that barked.
Put yourself in Peter’s place, having worked all night in a small boat, in the cold, in the dark, perhaps in the rain. How would you feel if while washing your nets shortly after dawn, dead tired after a long night of fishing, someone climbed into your boat and asked you to row him out into the lake, and then you had to sit in the boat waiting for several hours while that person spoke to an audience?
Before long, your patience would be wearing thin because you would not only be sleepy, you would begin to be very hungry as well. Imagine then being ordered to go back to work, to let down your nets again — after they had already been washed! What chutzpah on the part of Jesus!
Where was Jesus when he said to Peter, “Push out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”? Where was Jesus when Peter fell at his feet in shock and amazement? Our impression of the story in Luke 5:1–11 is sometimes colored by a similar story found in John 21:1–14. We often unconsciously harmonize these accounts even though the story in John takes place after the resurrection.
We picture Jesus standing elegantly on the beach, perhaps with an arm outstretched towards Peter’s boat some distance offshore. We envision Peter jumping out of his boat, swimming ashore, falling on his face on the beach before Jesus, and then climbing back aboard his boat to drag the loaded net ashore. This is due to the influence of John’s account which has Peter, when he heard that it was the Lord, jumping out of his boat which was 200 cubits (about 90 meters) from land and swimming ashore.
However, in Luke’s story, Jesus is in Peter’s boat when he tells Peter to push out into the deep water and begin fishing again. Jesus is also in the boat when Peter falls at his feet immediately after the loaded fish nets are hauled into the boat.
It may seem to us from English translations of this story that Peter alone maneuvered the boat into position for Jesus’ teaching session, that Peter alone took his boat out to deeper water, and that Peter single-handedly let down the nets.
But Jesus’ command — “Push out [plural] into the deep water and let down [plural] your [plural] nets for a catch” — indicates that there was at least one other fisherman from Peter’s crew who got into the boat with Peter and Jesus. Also the statement in verse 7, “they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them,” shows that Peter was not the only fisherman in the boat.
The trammel net boat was normally manned by four fishermen. It is therefore likely that there were two or three other fishermen who got into the boat along with Peter. (The trammel net boat could with some difficulty be operated by a crew of two — one crew member rowing and the other playing out and hauling in the nets.)
If only two people besides Peter and Jesus got into the boat, then perhaps Jesus served as the crew’s fourth member. If three got in then Jesus was in the way, since in a boat of this size — fifteen to eighteen feet long — there was barely room for four fishermen, their nets and other equipment.
This alters the usual picture we have of Jesus’ lakeside teaching session: as the crowd listened to Jesus, they saw him in a boat flanked by two to four fishermen. Furthermore, we have to picture Jesus, as the nets were being hauled into the boat, crowded into a corner of the boat and partially covered with nets and fish — unless he had replaced the fourth crew member and was helping to pull in the nets. Had Jesus himself spent time fishing on the Sea of Galilee?
The Miracle of the Catch
When Peter saw the enormous catch, he fell down in the boat in front of Jesus crying, “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” The text adds that Peter and those with him were astonished “at the catch of fish which they had taken.” Did these fishermen react this way because statistically it was unlikely that they would catch fish, not to speak of a near-record catch, after having worked all night and caught nothing?
Yes, this partially accounts for their shock. The unlikelihood of now catching enough fish to be worth their while financially is also indicated by Peter’s initial response. He didn’t immediately do as Jesus said, but first argued a little: “Lord, we have worked all night and caught nothing.”
But there is more to these Galilean fishermen’s reaction of amazement than the catch itself or its size. Until the introduction of transparent nylon nets in the mid-1950s, trammel net fishing was done only at night. In the daytime, the fish could see the nets and avoid them.
The miracle was that the fish swam blindly into the net. In addition, in trammel net fishing the fish had to be scared into the nets after the nets had been put in place. Although possible, it does not seem from Luke’s account that the fishermen made a commotion to frighten the fish.
What was it, then, that caused Peter to fall in fear at Jesus’ feet? Apparently, it was the timing of the miracle. It was amazement at Jesus’ ability to, as we say, “call the shots.” Immediately after he finished preaching, when it was convenient for him, Jesus compensated these fishermen for their inconvenience.
The confidence of Jesus stands out. To teach a crowd of people Jesus apparently did not mind the inconvenience he caused these fishermen, because he planned to reward them for their service and knew that he could do so whenever he wished. We see this same confidence demonstrated by Peter after Pentecost when Peter, knowing in advance what he was going to do and what would be the result, healed a lifelong cripple (Acts 3:6).
Jesus was not unaware of the tiredness of the fishermen and their frustration at not having caught anything after working so hard all night. He knew that they were dead tired and wanted to go home and go to sleep. He also knew of their general need for income and their particular lack of it after this unsuccessful night of fishing.
He removed their frustration at having wasted a night’s work and blessed them with enough fish to compensate them not just for the few hours he took of their time but with as many fish as they would normally have caught in several nights of good fishing. The catch described in Luke 5 was about three-fourths of a ton — as much as a trammel net fishing crew would normally take in two week’s work, allowing for nights like the one that Peter and his crew had just experienced when nothing is caught.
1 This chapter is based on the research of Mendel Nun, who spent a lifetime studying the ancient fishing methods used on the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus spent so much time on or near the sea, and his first disciples were Sea of Galilee fishermen, Nun’s work is important in illuminating many gospel stories.
2 Nun has also shown that in the story of the miraculous catch, Peter could only have been using a trammel net or a veranda net, a variation of the trammel net. He could not have been fishing with a seine because it was not used near Heptapegon/Capernaum. The floor of the lake in that area of the coast is so rocky that the seine would have continually gotten hung up on the rocks. And it is unlikely that Peter was using a cast-net because he was fishing with a boat and crew.
3 For more on trammel net fishing on the Sea of Galilee, see “Let Down Your Nets” by Mendel Nun, Jerusalem Perspective 24 (Jan/Feb 1990), pp. 11–13.
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.)
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)
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
The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. And He said, “To you it has been granted to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God… (Luke 8:4-11)
The parable of the sower is very familiar to Christians, but the punchline doesn’t quite make sense. Right after giving four illustrations of soil as it represents hearts that respond to God’s word, Jesus inserts a line about the “secrets of the Kingdom of God” that sounds as if he deliberately spoke in a coded riddles so that no one but an inner circle could understand.
Many have scratched their heads — is that really what he was saying? Reading this story in light of the Jewish culture in which it was given can solve several mysteries. Knowing more about its language, its use of Scripture, and how it fits into Jesus’ time can help us see its deeper message.
Other Parables About Four Types
First of all, it is important to know that parables were a common style of rabbinic preaching. There are over 4,000 parables in existence even to this day.1 They were used to illustrate a point with a concrete story, not to be secretive. Certainly Jesus’ point is usually quite clear. In the Good Samaritan parable, who can’t see why the Samaritan was a better neighbor than those who ignored the wounded man?
Listening to Jesus’ parables in light of other rabbinic sayings is very helpful for understanding them. He uses a familiar format, but gives it a unique flavor to teach about his kingdom.2 The “sower” parable sounds much like other “Four Types” parables, which compare four possible behaviors and their results:
There are four qualities in disciples: he who quickly understands and quickly forgets, his gain disappears in his loss; he who understands with difficulty and forgets with difficulty, his loss disappears in his gain; he who understands quickly and forgets with difficulty, his is a good portion; he who understands with difficulty and forgets quickly, his is an evil portion. (Pirke Avot 5:15)3
There are four characters among those who attend the house of study: he who goes and does not practice secures the reward for going; he who practices but does not go secures the reward for practicing; he who goes and practices is a saint; he who neither goes nor practices is a wicked man. (Pirke Avot 5:17)
Many parables include a four-fold comparison, but interestingly, these two sayings actually deal with a subject very similar to that of the parable of the sower: the response of a listener to the Word of God. The first is about a disciple remembering a rabbi’s teaching, and the second is about the reward for study and practicing God’s word.
These two sayings show the Jewish emphasis on lifelong study of the Bible, either through attending the “house of study” (bet midrash) at a local synagogue, or by being a disciple of a rabbi. We can see that God chose to send Jesus to a culture that greatly emphasized the study of Scripture. His words built upon and expanded the sayings of other rabbis, and brought them to a new level.
Another parable is similar in an additional way:
There are four types among those who sit in the presence of the rabbis: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. “The sponge,” which soaks up everything. “The funnel,” which takes in at this end and lets out at the other. “The strainer,” which lets out the wine and retains the dregs. “The sieve,” which removes the chaff and retains the fine flour. (Pirke Avot, 5:18)
This third parable also talks about the learning of disciples, and this one initially might sound secretive with words like “sponge” and “funnel,” etc. Upon further reflection, however, we can see that the imagery is meant to illustrate a point. Obviously, one doesn’t want to be a funnel that loses everything that it takes in. The best thing not to be the sponge either, a person who parrots answers without discernment. Rather, a sieve is the best, because that person learns what is worthwhile and ignores what is not.
Notice that this parable also doesn’t include an explanation, because the audience was supposed to be able to figure it out. Not explaining a parable was common in rabbinic preaching.
Interestingly, these three rabbinic parables all focus on learning the Scriptures. Like them, Jesus’ words were a call to examine ourselves to see which type of listener that we are. Are our hearts hard to God’s word, or are we shallow, or are we distracted by wealth or daily living?
The same good seed is sown in all places, but whether it bears fruit is dependent on the soil. This parable should therefore be called “The Parable of the Soils” rather than “The Parable of the Sower,” because the point is that the impact of the Word is dependent on the listener, not on the message itself (the seed) and not on God (the sower), who shares with people whether or not they are likely to respond.
If this is the message of Jesus’ parable, it actually unlocks the sentences in the middle. If Jesus was saying that good seed can’t grow well in bad soil, then it follows that the reason people didn’t understanding Jesus is not because his words were deliberately confusing, but because of their lack of desire to obey it. The disciples, on the other hand, were responding in obedience. Only then did God’s truths become clear to them in their own personal experience, so that they would know the “secrets of the Kingdom of God.” (Psalm 25:14)
Prophetic Irony in Jesus’ Words
There are a couple more details that support this conclusion. Another rabbinic habit that Jesus had was to allude to a Scripture passage with the assumption that the audience would know its broader context.3 This was common because Jewish society was well-versed in the Bible. Here, Jesus quoted from Isaiah when he said,
Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. (Isaiah 6:10)
This passage is from the commissioning of the prophet Isaiah as God’s messenger. Knowing its greater context, Jesus’ listeners would have understood its great irony: God commissioned Isaiah to go out and preach to his people, and God certainly gave him clear words to say.
God was not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though his teaching would be rejected by most. Jesus was saying the same thing — that like the prophets he spoke to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many would not hear or obey him. In both instances, God’s greatest desire was to see his people return to him and be healed, but with frustrated irony, he proclaims that for the most part, they will not.
Another insight comes from the language of Jesus’ words. In Hebrew, the word “hear,” shema, doesn’t just mean to listen, but also to respond and obey.4 When we read the phrase, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” we may ignore it as a common exclamation in Jesus’ day. In this passage, however, it seems to be Jesus’ main point — if you hear, than you must obey as well! The entire passage is about hearing and obedience, and how the state of our hearts impacts how we shema, hear and obey.
The Kingdom and the Hundredfold Yield
The fact that the crop the good soil yields is a “hundredfold” is significant. In biblical times, sowing a crop and reaping a hundredfold was unheard of, while a five to tenfold crop was all that was expected. It is quite possible that Jesus was again using the rabbinic habit of Scripture allusion with the phrase a “hundredfold,” because it occurs only once in all of the Hebrew Bible, in Genesis 26:12, “Now Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold.”
The rabbis loved to discuss the stories of the patriarchs, and Isaac’s shocking yield of a hundredfold would have quite memorable, and completely impossible without divine help. It was an amazing miracle that God alone could achieve! In the same way, Jesus was saying that the impact of God’s word on those who obey him will be obviously miraculous, beyond anything a human could do on his or her own. While responding to God’s call takes our willingness, the spiritual fruit is so miraculous that it can only come from God!
A Possible Reason for this Parable
A question that must have been on his listeners minds was, “If you are the Messiah, why aren’t you a glorious king that has taken charge by now? Where is your army? Why are so many people not following you? Why isn’t your kingdom huge and powerful?” I wonder if this parable, as well as the ones about the yeast and the mustard seed, were intended as a response. Jesus was defending the fact that he truly is the Messiah. God’s reign on earth had begun on earth and was expanding, even though it was not visible yet.
As Jesus tells it, God is like a farmer that sows a field knowing that much of the land is poor — that many hearts are not open to him. He knows that many will not respond to his call, but this will not defeat his purposes. He knows that like a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous tree, when his kingdom takes hold of the few who will receive it, what an incredible impact it will have!5
The Importance of Discipleship for the Kingdom
Understanding the parable can yield insights for us today. Obviously, we need to examine ourselves and look at the “soil” of our hearts. Are we distracted by the cares of this world? How can we be more obedient to do God’s will?
It’s easy for us to insult Jesus’ original audience and assume that he was tossing them aside by telling them how dull they were to his preaching. Are we so different than them, though? Who of us isn’t choked by weeds in our lives? How many of us truly follow wherever Christ leads?
One thing the parable says may surprise us. We often focus on evangelism — the sharing of the Gospel with non-believers — as the central goal of the church, and believe that the most significant event in a person’s life is the day they accept Jesus as Savior. In Jesus’ parable, however, the sprouting of the seed is not the goal, but only an important beginning.
We like to count the number of hands that go up at an altar call as a way of seeing the kingdom expand, but in this parable, the counting is only done at the end, after the fruit has matured. As critical as evangelism is, Jesus is saying that discipleship is just as important to God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ words about becoming a disciple are tough to hear! The road is narrow and we need to count the cost and take up our cross. It’s discouraging to hear how few will really respond, given the thorns and rocks that are so common in this world.
But Jesus promises that through an obedient disciple he can do truly miraculous things to expand his kingdom — far beyond the dreams of human ability! This is what should make us want to set our hearts and wills to following him. Only then will we know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.
1 It should be noted that while thousands of parables are found in rabbinic literature, none are found in intertestamental literature, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo or Josephus. Nonetheless, many NT scholars read only these (and other pre-70 AD) sources but avoid rabbinic material because it post-dates the New Testament.
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.
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.
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.
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!
An 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.
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