For the last number of years, I have been thinking about Jesus, Paul, and the Jewish background to the New Testament. I had become interested in the writings of N.T. Wright and his views surrounding the Second Temple, justification, and covenant. This study has led me to look at the New Testament through new eyes by asking the simple question, “what did the teachings of Paul and Jesus mean to the people of their day.”
Once we figure out the context of the New Testament teachings it becomes easier (much easier) to understand the sayings of the New Testament writers. It is important to understand that Jesus, Paul, and the other writers didn’t write in a vacuum. They were steeped in Old Testament teachings regarding the Messiah, His mission, the Messianic age, and covenant law. Paul, for instance, wasn’t just grabbing quotations out of thin air and then expounding upon them. He was producing a carefully thought out series of teachings that were not based upon speculation, but, instead were based upon both His encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road and his interpretation of that event in light of Old Testament prophecy and Law.
We live in a world that is for the most part Biblically illiterate. I remember, years ago, taking a University course on contemporary fiction and how surprised the teacher was when many of the students didn’t know the background to the Biblical stories that made up much of the literature they were studying.
But it is not only in the secular society that makes up much of our modern culture that the Bible is misunderstood or reduced to comic book narrative. Go into most Christian bookstores and the shelves are empty of Theology, Ethics, Eschatology, and Church History. It is not necessarily the fault of pastors that many church members have no interest in hearing more in depth teachings than a simple sermon on relationships. We live in a culture where a half-hour television program stretches the attention span, so they are fed more milk in order to appease them and keep them attending.
Yet there is great hope for the church. I recently read about a youth group that was dying and the leader suggested that they actually try studying the Bible with the teens. After all they had nothing to lose. The church leadership reluctantly agreed believing that they would see their dwindling group sink even lower in attendance. Instead, the young people gravitated to the study and were soon bringing friends and former members began returning.
If we wish to rock our world for Christ and be relevant to a struggling, confused, and lost world, we can only accomplish that mission through the Holy Spirit. Yet, how few of us understand the mission of the Spirit, let alone His power, because we are not digging deeper into our Bibles.
This all leads me back to my original point that in order to understand what Jesus is doing in our world we need to understand the original context of Scripture and understand it as it was originally meant to be.
Let me give you an illustration. When we ask the question “did Jesus know He was God?” we answer “of course” because we can read back into the story of His life, crucifixion, and resurrection. But when Jesus walked the world did He really know and understand that He was God? Did He understand that He was the Messiah? And did He understand that the Messiah had to be divine?
We can answer yes to all those questions but what were the Jewish perceptions of God and the Messiah? Did the Jews believe that the Messiah was divine? What did they believe about the Messiah?
I can’t get into all that in the space I have for this post but we might be surprised at what the expectations were regarding God and the Messiah. I’ll dig into this subject in a later post. Let me simply say that the Jews believed that God was the creator who was always with them, and secondly He was the God of the Jews. They were His people and through them they would bless the world.
The problem for the Jewish nation was that they understood they had failed. For many Jews they believed that they were still in captivity just as much as they were under Egypt and Babylon. When they returned from captivity to rebuild the Temple it didn’t get by them that the Shekinah glory had not returned to the Temple. Yet, the prophecies said this would happen again. So what was wrong? They looked at their lives and their subjection to the Romans and understood that they were still in captivity because of their sins.
In order for everything to be placed right the Messiah must return and re-establish His Temple and rule. He must free the people from Roman rule, forgive sins, and lead the nation to a glorious golden age. Now, is this who Jesus saw Himself or did He understand the Messiahship as something else?
Let me ask another question? If Jesus, the Messiah, had portrayed Himself as the Messiah that we understand, how would that have gone over? This is the reason Jesus spoke in parables and many of His sayings seem to be cryptic in nature. Jesus knew what the Jews meant by Messiah and He also knew what He understood the Messiah to be. The result was He needed to help them understand the true nature of Messiahship but within the context of their understanding.
I know, this all sounds a bit confusing but the point that I am making is that Jesus understood Himself to be the Messiah but it was different from what the Jews believed and probably a bit different from what we perceive as we look back two thousand plus years.
Does it matter? Yes! For example, the Jews believed the Messiah was going to build the Temple and reign from it, but Jesus said He was going to tear it down. Because the Jews were thinking of a physical building they believed Jesus was saying that He would literally tear down the Temple. They knew no man could do that and they also believed that was the last thing the Messiah would do. Result, was Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah.
But Jesus was speaking of the old covenant, the old age, the old Temple coming to an end because He was ushering in the new age as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In order to understand the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry and what He was teaching we need to understand what the people of His day were thinking regarding the Messiah. It is only as we see this radical message standing against the perceived convictions of His day that we can grasp the power of the Gospel to stand against the perceived convictions of our own day.
Jesus would tear down the walls of the Temple of pride, righteousness, and arrogance that surrounded the spiritual leaders of His day with a simple message of forgiveness of sins, peace, and love. While the Jewish leaders, zealots, and common man prepared for war under the teachings of false Messiahs, Jesus taught turn the other cheek, carry each other’s burdens, and walk the extra mile for your enemy. Yes, He knew He was the Messiah, it just wasn’t the Messiah of expectation.