Archive for the 'Devotional' Category

St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus as Rabbi:
Part 1: What is a Rabbi?
Part 2: Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Part 3: Jesus’ Miracles

Jesus, as an integral member of the culture he lived in, was not only a rabbi with s’mikah, but he also took part in the rabbinic culture of his day, interacting with others in that culture. As such, he was called on to answer a number of questions and to weigh in with his opinions on issues of import to that culture.

The Schools

Within his culture of early first-century Israel, there were seven primary rabbinic ’schools’ of thought, with followers – talmidim – in each school. These schools were named after the founding rabbi, even if that rabbi was no longer alive. Much like the discussion that goes on in CRN.Info, these schools of thought within Judiasm would debate key questions of theology and practice, often quite heatedly.

At the poles of thought within these schools, the most lenient (or liberal, though not in a modern sense) of the rabbinical schools was the School of Hillel. One of Hillel’s key teachings, recorded in the Talmud, is this:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

About ten years after Hillel’s death, Jesus took this concept, building onto it in a positive fashion:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

At the other end of the spectrum, the School of Shammai was the most strict in its interpretations. The remaining five schools of rabbinic thought ranged between these two, Hillel and Shammai, with key nuances – emphases or de-emphases – from the other schools. When Jesus began his ministry near the age of 30, he entered into this context, and as one might expect, he was asked to weigh in on the great debates of the day.

Question and Answer

Within the rabbinic schools, the primary means of debate was ask-assertive conversation rather than the highly expository method in Western/Greek culture. The reason for this is based on the theory that ‘if I tell you what you should believe, the answer you have is my answer. If, however, I ask you questions that lead to the answer, when you arrive at it, the answer will be your answer. As such, if you come into contact with alternative alternative answers, you will be much less likely to abandon the one I taught you.’

I saw this type of ‘questioning’ in action in Sefat, Israel in 2006 in a small photography shop run by an elderly Rabbi. The artwork in this shop was literally amazing, and one of the men in our group asked the rabbi which of the pieces was his favorite. The conversation then went like this:

Rabbi: May I ask you a question?
Jon: Yes…
Rabbi: Are you married?
Jon: Yes, why?
Rabbi: Do you have children?
Jon: Yes. (pause) Why?
Rabbi: Which of them is your favorite?

And thus, he had his answer. To a westerner like me, it seems that it would have been simpler to say ‘I can’t pick one, because each has something I love’ (or something similar), but that answer would not have been nearly as personal as the one given by the elderly rabbi.

In a similar fashion, much of Jesus’ teaching was in the form of questions and stories rather than simple exposition. On the occasions when we see him interacting with students/adherents to other schools, he uses this technique to point to an answer before giving exposition on the subject, as the answer to his questions often contain the answer he is giving. Also, in many cases where Jesus is being questioned, it is out of an honest attempt to learn his teaching on a subject, not always to trap him.

The Debates

When Hillel died in 10 A.D., the Shammites took over the Pharisee role within the Sanhedrin and became the primary religious influence in Judea, whereas in the Galilee region, where Jesus lived and was raised, the teachings of Hillel held sway. With this in mind, the pharisees that opposed Jesus we often identified as Judeans (or were located in Jerusalem in Judea), whereas the ones sympathetic to Jesus or his followers (like Gamaliel, Hillel’s grandson) were Gallilean.

According to Josephus and other Jewish records, there were a number of key debates being waged between the rabbinical schools. These included divorce, who is my neighbor, hand-washing, marriage in the afterlife, the greatest commandment, healing on the Sabbath (Shammai taught you shouldn’t even pray for the sick on the Sabbath, let alone heal them!), the purpose of the Sabbath and whether Gentiles could be saved. The animosity shown between the Shammites and the Hillelites are hard to understate, with comparisons to the classic Calvinist/Arminian debate holding similarities, with the Shammites holding to a strict fundamentalist view of scripture and practice and the Hillelites holding to a much more lenient, contextual view which emphasized the balance between love for God and love for your neighbor.
As such, it is interesting that in the eight key debates that Jesus entered, he sided with the School of Hillel – or went even farther than Hillel – in seven and only sided with Shammai in one case (that of when divorce is acceptable).

For instance, in the debate of “who is my neighbor?”, Shammai taught that only God-fearing, observant Jews were ‘neighbors’ (thus, the only ones worthy of love). Hillel, on the other hand, taught that everyone – including one’s enemies – were ‘neighbors’, with the exception of the hated, apostate Samaritans. And so, when Jesus was asked (in the scripture above), “Who is my neighbor?” he entered this debate:

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”

It should be noted that the priest and the Levite were both obeying Torah by not touching a dead or nearly-dead body and becoming unclean, so they were following the law, as interpreted by Shammai and other strict rabbinic schools of thought. According to Pharisee teaching, though, all life was sacred and the proper thing to do would have been to stop and help the man or bury him (thus becoming unclean for a time) if he died. A number of commentators suggest that the expert in the Torah was likely expecting Jesus to make the “good guy” a pharisee, thus siding with Hillel on the issue of the importance of life above ritual cleanliness.

Instead, though, Jesus said:

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” [Note: he couldn't even SAY the word 'Samaritan']
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

And so, Jesus’ answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” was everybody, including the most despised apostate you can think of, going further to the ‘left’ of Hillel.

So, when viewed within the context of his world, this is just one more example where we can get a view into why Jesus was asked certain questions, how he interacted with his world, and some of the political/religious backdrop that ultimately led to his death, burial and resurrection.

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Capstone in CapernaumIn Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we have examined what a first-century ‘rabbi’ was (as opposed to the modern Orthodox Jewish Rabbi) and established that Jesus was personally living and acting within this religious & social role. With that as background, I will be spending the next two or three articles differentiating Jesus from his contemporary sages/rabbis.

This first area of differentiation is in the realm of miracles, and it is an area that I expect will not be without a little bit of controversy.

One common question that comes up in discussions about Jesus is “if he was performing all of these miracles, why didn’t people believe in him based on these, alone?” In addition to some Western theologians’ answers to this question, I believe that there’s a rich Hebrew cultural answer contained within scripture, as well.


According to numerous Hebrew accounts, a number of sages with s’mikah were differentiated from Torah teachers in that the people believed they could, via God working through them, perform certain types of miracles. This, in itself, is difficult for many Christians to understand/accept, and in response to this, I would look to two potential responses to this from Ray Vanderlaan:

1) Why not? The Jews, despite the faults that developed in the religious system, are God’s people, and their religious leaders – particularly the devout hasidim from whence came the rabbis – loved God, were known to pray and fast, and many were known to be healers. Why wouldn’t God listen to their prayers and provide miraculous relief?

2) Even if God did not provide miracles through them, the people believed they did.

One example of many, translate by Brad Young in his book The Parables, describes a miracle performed by the rabban Choni (”the Circle-Drawer”) a century before Jesus’ birth:

One example of many, translate by Brad Young in his book The Parables, describes a miracle performed by the rabban Choni (”the Circle-Drawer”) a century before Jesus’ birth:

Once they asked Choni the Circle drawer, “Pray that rain may fall.” He answered them ‘Go out and take inside the Passover ovens so that they may not be softened.’ He prayed by the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it. He spoke before him, “O Lord of the universe, your children have turned their faces to me, because I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not move from here until you show mercy upon your children.” Rain started to sprinkle. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits and caverns.” It began to rain with more violence. He continued, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing and graciousness.” Then it rained in moderation [and continued] until the Israelites went up to Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They went and asked him, “In the same way you prayed for rain to come, so pray that it may go away!”

There are other examples, as well, related to Choni, Hillel and others. So, even if these were not ‘true’ miracles, the people certainly taught that they were and believed them.


Despite the apparent ability to perform miracles, there were recorded limitations as to the miracles that could be performed. Marvin Wilson records three of these limitations in his book Our Father Abraham:

  1. Curing genetic blindness
  2. Casting out muting demons
  3. Raising the dead after 3 days

Read the rest of this entry »

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Mount Carmel

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.


In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

In Part 1 of this series, we explored the question “What is a Rabbi?”, along with some of this question’s implications. In this article, we will examine the question “Was Jesus a Rabbi?”, to which I believe the answer is “yes”, that he was a rabbi with s’mikah (authority) in the tradition of the hasidim – which, per Part 1, is not the same as a Jewish Orthodox Rabbi, in today’s world.

Who Called Jesus Rabbi?

From the Biblical record, we have note of 7 different groups/types of people who refer to Jesus as “Rabbi” or “Teacher” (the rough translation): His disciples (Mark 9:5, Mark 11:21 etc.); Pharisees (John 3:1-2); John the Baptist’s disciples (John 1:35-38); Common people (Mark 10:51, John 6:24-25); Torah teachers (Matthew 8:19); Herodians (Luke 3:12); and the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-32). Additionally, he refers to himself by this title (John 13:12-14, Luke 22:10-11).

The title ‘Rabbi’, in first-century contemporary literature, could refer both to Torah teachers (”Teachers of the Law”) and sages/rabbis with s’mikah (authority). Jesus, who was clearly recognized by this title, would have fallen into one of these two categories, though clearly – from scripture – it was the latter.

Jesus’ Authority

In similar fashion, Jesus was recognized by many people in scripture as having authority (s’mikah). In Mark 1:22 we read:

The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

According to Hebrew tradition, for a sage/rabbi to have s’mikah – authority to make new teachings to interpret scripture – he had to be recognized as a prophet from God, himself, or – as Aaron and Moses had traditionally given authority to 70 elders – they had to be recognized as having s’mikah by two other rabbis with s’mikah.

We know, from the scriptures, that John the Baptist was considered to be a similar sort of Rabbi (John 3:26) or a prophet (Matthew 11:7-9), with disciples of his own (Matthew 9:14), and followers in Asia Minor, who were later baptized into Jesus by Paul (Acts 19:1-7). And so it is we read in John 1:

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”

Additionally, when Jesus was questioned by the Sadducees as to where he got his s’mikah (authority), his answer (via the rabbinic technique of answering in questions) would indicate that John – a prophet – had heralded (not granted) his authority from God.

Additional Evidence

In Part 1, discussing rabbis in general, I noted that:

they lived a more itinerate lifestyle and took on followers – called talmidim (disciples) – who lived with them most of time, though they would be sent out on their own later in their learning. The rabbis had a yoke, their method of interpreting scripture, in which they would order the commandments of Torah from greatest to least. The talmidim of a rabbi would be expected to live by that yoke and to memorize the key teachings of that rabbi. Living with their rabbi, these talmidim would also learn to live in the same manner – with their greatest desire to be to learn to follow God just like their rabbi. In all of this, the talmidim were also in complete submission to the authority of their rabbi.

It is the presence of disciples, talmidim, which is one of the strongest bits of evidence of Jesus’ role as a rabbi in the tradition of the hasidim. In the Jewish culture, in order for one to be called a talmid, they had to have a rabbi to follow. To say that Jesus’ disciples were disciples, but he was not a rabbi is like saying “I’m married to Suzanne, and I am Suzanne’s husband, but she is not my wife”.

Additionally, Jesus had a yoke (Matthew 11:28-30; 22:36-40 ), he sent our his disciples on their own later in their learning (Matthew 10:5-25), they memorized his teaching and followed it (Matthew 7:24-29, Luke 6:46-49), they lived with him so that they could follow his example (Matthew 10:1, 16:24-28).

In Conclusion

It seems clear, from Biblical and cultural evidence from the first century that Jesus was a Rabbi, in the tradition of the hasidim and not the post-70 AD midrash Rabbis of today. It is also clear that Jesus was recognized by the people as having s’mikah, and that he had talmidim following him.

In the coming articles, we will examine some more aspects of Jesus as a Rabbi in addition to what it means for us to be a disciple in the true meaning of the word.

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[This is another one of my older personal blog articles that I've touched up a bit for part of our conversation here at CRN.Info]
Don't Throw StonesIt has been pointed out to me that I tend to pick on those more theologically aligned with me than with those who are rather liberal in their theology. Upon reflection, this is a fair criticism, as I guess I would think folks who take the Bible seriously (which, some of my liberal mainline brothers may claim with their mouths but often not with their actions) would know better. In looking to my own Rabbi as an example, he was much harder on the Pharisees (who were of the same theological stripe) than on the Sadducees and Herodians (Hebrews who were in bed with the Romans for the sake of power) or the zealots (who were zealous for the Lord, but wanted to use violence) or the pagan Romans.

With that said, though, the scripture I’d like to examine today is one that tends to be abused by those who pay lip service to scripture on a normal day, but who all the sudden consider it highly important when talking about law and order.

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11)

Where this passage of scripture seems to get (ab)used today is in criticism of tough laws and in opposition to the death penalty. In reality, this narrative in its original context, is more about the incompatibility of hypocrisy and the kingdom of God (including social justice, mind you), than about justice systems and sentencing.


According to numerous first-century sources, the approved method of execution by stoning in the Jewish culture is this: The accused person is taken to a drop-off that is 18-feet high (or higher), and stripped naked with their hands bound behind their back.  At this point, the accused is given a chance to confess his or her sin.  If he or she confessed, it was believed that their sin would be forgiven.  If they did not, their sin would not be forgiven.  In either case, once the condemned was given this opportunity, the execution could take place.

The two (or more) eyewitnesses of the crime then would push the person off the edge. All those who believed that the accused was guilty would then pick up a single stone (they only got one) and throw/drop it on the person from the edge of the drop-off. If they died (which was often the case), that was God’s judgement upon them. If they lived, then it was His judgement, as well (which is why Paul lived to write about himself being stoned).

The two witnesses are very important. These two to three witnesses cannot be complicit in the crime, and without them, you cannot condemn the person to death. These witnesses must also be the first to cast the stones on the guilty person.

On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. (Deut 17:6 -7a)

(I think it would be a fair debate to decide what constitutes a ‘witness’ today, now that we have forensic science with DNA, fingerprints and such that are considered to be more reliable than an eyewitness.  Too often, I think we rely on strictly circumstantial evidence in death penalty cases, which moves away from the biblical requirement of witnesses.)

The Case at Hand

When the woman is brought before Jesus, instantly there should be some questions in the mind of the observer – If their purpose was to trap Jesus, how did they know where to catch the woman in the act? Where is the man who was part of the act of adultery? The law they were asking Jesus to rule on required both partners be stoned.

‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.’ (Leviticus 20:10)

The man who sinned with the woman was not there, which should be a red flag that there is some injustice going on, as the man should have been present, as well. The woman was of lower social status than the man, and so to demand consequences for her sin, but not that of her accomplice – who would have been seen as more responsible for the sin – would have been seen as mistreatment of someone of lower status.  This type of oppression as forbidden in both the written and oral Torah. It is possible that the woman was a prostitute (since neither the man, nor her husband, were present), which would indicate an even lower social status. In any case, without the man with whom she committed the sin or a wronged husband asking for justice, there could be no reasonably just ruling involving only the woman.

And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it. (Deuteronomy 1:16-17)

Also, since they were bringing her to Jesus, who had no formal authority in the Temple, and they were not taking her to the Sanhedrin, who had the formal religious authority over such matters (but who could no longer pronounce death sentences at this time, as a result of Roman law), they were asking him to make a legal ruling that even their own rulers could not make. However, his actions give us distinct clues as to what his ruling was, and what it might mean to us.

Jesus’ Response

Jesus first response when the woman was brought to him was to bend over and write with his finger in the dust. He continued doing this, even as they questioned him. We, as westerners, always want to ask the question – WHAT did he write? To the listener in the first century, particularly a Jewish listener with intimate knowledge of Torah (as most observent Jews had), what he wrote may have been superfluous, as they would have understood the story without it. In its Jewish context it is his act of writing in the dust that would bring to mind (as an unspoken remez) the prophet Jeremiah:

“I the LORD search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward a man according to his conduct,
according to what his deeds deserve.”

Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay
is the man who gains riches by unjust means.
When his life is half gone, they will desert him,
and in the end he will prove to be a fool.

A glorious throne, exalted from the beginning,
is the place of our sanctuary.

O LORD, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust
because they have forsaken the LORD,
the spring of living water.

If this is the case, from the verses around the remez, what should we conclude about Jesus’ action? I suspect it was the names of the individuals standing there that Jesus was writing in the dust, but (as noted) the very act of writing in the dust would call this passage to mind. And what is the sin for which those who turn away from God? From this passage of scripture, it is “the man who gains riches by unjust means”.

And so, after writing in the dust, Jesus tells the men that “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”. Because this is part of the ritual of stoning, it would mean “If any one of you is without this sin…”. Which sin, though? As suggested by David Flusser, Ray VanderLaan and others, I would suggest it is the sin of injustice – which Jesus was referencing by writing in the dust. However, it may also be the sin of adultery – for how would the men know how/where to catch the woman if they were not in some way complicit in her crime (if she was a prostitute), or in only partially prosecuting it (by leaving the adulterer out of the judicial proceedings).

Remember also that the two witnesses had to push her off of a drop-off, and that they had to stone her first – as witnesses.

At this point, the men – the oldest (and therefore, culturally, the wisest) left first, followed by the youngest. And then, when Jesus is alone with the woman, he gives her his ruling, as well. Without any witnesses as accusers, she had no one to condemn her. And so, Jesus sent her away, telling her not to sin any more.

So What?

While a number of people who like to quote this passage use it to support arguments for leniency/absence of consequences (particularly the death penalty) for crimes or sins committed, Jesus was not making such an argument. Neither here, nor elsewhere, does he undermine the authority of the government to maintain order (which later Paul affirms that Christians are to obey their governmental leaders), nor does he advocate leniency in earthly consequence for societal sin.

Instead, what he gives us is a reminder to seek justice, particularly for those of lesser status, and to not take advantage of others less fortunate than ourselves.

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[Again, this is an older article of mine with some updates made to it, dealing with the misuse of certain scriptures in modern Christianity. Also, contrary to some belief, this is not in response to any particular ODM, blog or writer, but more as a study of scripture in context...]

Court of the Gentiles

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’” (Matthew 21:12-13)

Probably my first exposure to orthopraxy involving this verse was 15 years ago, when a youth group in our church was raising money for a mission trip, building a church in Mexico. Some of the kids purchased some boxes of doughnuts and “sold” them for donations toward the trip, standing next to the coffee urn in the church foyer. One of the staff members gave them a haranguing when he saw them, “because Jesus threw people out of the temple for buying and selling there”!

In the years since, it has been very interesting to see the vast number of references to this particular story about Jesus, along with the varied interpretations of what he was doing and why he was doing it. Some use this story to decry Christian merchandising, selling of items within a church building, dishonesty, or Judaic worship. Others use it as an example of justified righteous anger with any of the above items and more. But what was Jesus really attacking, why was he angry with it, and what scriptural and contextual support do we have to determine this?

The Setting

Josephus and other Judaic records (from the Essenes) tell us that in the latter Second Temple period (during Jesus’ life and after it, prior to 70 AD), the sale of animals for sacrifice originally took place in the Royal Stoa of the Temple (the area under the porticoes in the upper part of the diagram above). Early in the first century, these records indicate that pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem were no longer able to bring their own sheep for sacrifice, but they had to purchase sheep raised by the Sadducees in the hills around Bethlehem. This created a need for more space to buy and sell sheep in the Temple grounds. Because the selling of animals and the exchange of money was so profitiable for the Sadducee party, they then expanded their enterprise into the court of Gentiles (the area in front of the Royal Stoa).

Warning on the soregIf you will notice in the picture above, there is a short wall within the great court which was the closest non-Jewish believers and the ceremonially unclean could come to the Altar and the Holy of Holies. Warnings were inscribed on this wall, cautioning those who did not belong further inside the courts that they would be put to death for passing this wall, called the soreg (see the picture to the right). When the Sadducees expanded the area for selling animals, this effectively removed almost half of the space available to gentiles and ‘unclean’ Jews in the Temple grounds!

At the same time, there is also indication – confirmed in recent archaeological finds – that the Sadducees used weights and measures which were as much as 70% biased in their favor. To purchase sheep at the temple, pilgrims had to exchange their local currency into the temple currency. And so, faithful Jews who came to the Temple for sacrifice during the mandatory festivals, were being cheated when they exchanged money, and the god-fearing non-Jews who came to Jerusalem to the House were being forced out of the Temple.

It is upon this stage that Jesus entered the temple and turned over the tables.

Jesus’ Anger

There is significant evidence from Jesus’ very words that what made him so angry was that people were being kept away from worshipping God. Jesus uses two quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures in a form of remez (a ‘hint’ that must be interpreted by reading the verses just before or after the quoted scripture).

First, he says – “My house will be called a house of prayer” – which is quoting from Isaiah 56:7. If we read this verse and those surrounding it, we can see that this quotation is placing an importance of God’s House being a house of prayer for all nations, and that God desires that many beyond Israel should be saved.

6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to serve him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to worship him,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant-

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.

8 The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”
(Isaiah 56:6-8)

In the gospel of Mark, which is primarily directed to Christians in Rome (who did not have as deep a knowledge of scripture) includes additional words to complete the remez – “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations“. (Mark 11:17)

The second half of Jesus’ statement, which can legitimately refer to the dishonesty in the money-changing tables (also supported by Jesus’ turning these tables over), would also have been understood by religious Jews in his audience as a pronouncement against the Temple, itself, because of the sins being committed there. He says, “but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”, which is a direct quote from Jeremiah 7:11. Let’s read the verses just before and after this:

Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”-safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

” ‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim.’ So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you.

Just for the record, Shiloh was located in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was utterly destroyed by the Assyrians, as prophecied by Isaiah. Shiloh, itself, had been razed by the Philistines in appoximately 1050 BC, as well, due to the sins of the poeple. And so, from this remez, we can easily surmise exactly how angry Jesus was with the sins of the people, and what would be the ultimate result of their sins.

Who is Jesus Angry With?

Diagram of the TempleIf there is any question whether Jesus is angry with the money changers, themselves, or the Sadducees (who were in control of the workings of the temple, and who made the decision to exclude Gentiles to make room for selling), Matthew gives us a clue in the passages after the turning of the tables.

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
” ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise‘?”

From a literal reading of Jesus’ words, the words do not appear to give an answer to the chief priests (who were Sadducees) and the teachers of the law. However, Jesus is again using remez, which both of these groups would definitely have understood, quoting the first half of Psalm 8:2. If we read all of this quoted verse, we once again get a deeper meaning.

From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.

In Jesus seemingly innocent declaration ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’, we can see that he has declared that these religious authorities are the enemies of God. This is definitely a harsh statement!

And so, here is another example of how, by understanding the cultural context of the scripture and the rabbinical teaching techniques used by Jesus, we get a much clearer and vivid picture of what occurred in this Biblical story.

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I’ve been kind of quiet this past week. A lot is on my mind. I’ve been both challenged and convicted by some of you here.

I think it was Keith (or pastorboy) that pointed out that as believers, when we are sinned against by another believer, we are to approach the offender. However, we don’t do this repeatedly until the offender confesses. If the offender is unrepentant, we have to let it go.

A year and a half ago, my closest friend did something that hurt me very much. At first I didn’t say anything. I just let it burn inside me. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I approached him. He didn’t really apologize (unless you call “I’m sorry you feel that way” an apology). I repeatedly met with him, confronting him with what he had done. At least one other Christian approached him as well. Unfortunately, our relationship has deteriorated to the point that we no longer go to the same church nor is he willing to meet with me.

So, it’s time to let go. I was sinned against and I need to forgive. In retrospect, I guess I did quite a bit of sinning against him.

Then, we had the post about tone here at Great thoughts and really challenging.

And on Sunday, I read this passage in James:

James 3:13-18 (ESV)

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

So, I’m a contributor here. Sometimes I think I write good articles, sometimes lame ones. But vs 17-18 really hit me hard. I really need to start applying these. Not just here on this blog. But in real life. With my friend, who will no longer speak to me. With my fiancé, as we work through planning and stressing about our wedding. With my family. With my roommate. The list appears to be endless. And yet, this is what I, as a Christian, am called to do.

photo by:

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Since my article on hermeneutics a couple weeks back, I’ve had a few questions on the remez (”hint”) technique. While I’ve mentioned it a few times in comments and on my own blog, I thought it might be good to step through the classic example of remez (probably one of the simplest ones to see).

Just to backtrack – remez is a TEACHING technique used by Jewish rabbis/sages dating back to (at least) the first century B.C. A number of modern Jewish sources, even if they do not believe his message, consider a certain rabbi, Yeshua of Nazareth, to be the master in its usage (which should not come to us as a surprise).

A remez, or “hint”, is a way of referring to a large portion of scripture by quoting a small part of that scripture (or one right before or after it). This was particularly useful in the first century, because most of the audience would have had Torah (at the least), along with most of the Psalms and other parts of the sciptures memorized. Thus, by quoting one part of a scripture, the listener could easily ‘fill in the blanks’ or draw additional insight from the teaching.
As I have studied remez, I have read through the gospels, in particular, and Acts to see where Jesus and his disciples quote from the Hebrew Scriptures. Wherever I find such quotes, I then go back to the passage they are quoting and read the verses around the one quoted. You might surprise yourself if you try this in your own study.

Probably the simplest example of remez in the gospels is found in Matthew 27:46 and its parallel passage in Mark 15:34. Here, Jesus is hanging on the cross and he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

As it so happens, the first words of Psalm 22 are “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”. In remez, when you quote the first verse of a song (a psalm), you are referencing the entire psalm. So, as a student of the scriptures, you would hear Jesus say this, and you would instantly think of what Psalm 22 is conveying. Go read it now – seriously.

If you are like I was years ago, these words of Jesus on the cross were a bit confusing – I remember thinking “why on earth did Jesus (of all people) think that God had left him?” And while I heard a good number of sermons on the topic, none of them satisfied like the explanation that came directly from the Psalm Jesus quoted.

A couple years ago, the International Bible Society (who publishes the NIV) did a short video series on some of the Psalms, called streams. One of these was Psalm 22, in which they also mention the use of remez. Watch it (below) and tell me what you think of this example… (some browsers can’t see the video inline, and if yours is one of them, you can see it here)

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An excellent run down from Brant.

Read the whole thing, but here’s a brief excerpt (I think that’s redundant).

His crucifixion and resurrection were, obviously, central to this message. Instead of setting us politically free, He set us truly free — free from just punishment of our rebellion, free from death itself.

Jesus’ plan was bigger than that of His people at the time. His teaching gave us a way to be set free, here and now, from ourselves; from our sin, anger, bitterness, lust, envy, lack of contentment. (Read the Sermon on the Mount with that in mind, in Matthew 5-7.) The Kingdom was announced then, with Jesus telling people how happy (”blessed” in some translations) various on-the-outs groups would be that the Kingdom was here.

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Church of the Holy SepulchreAnd there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Part I: Getting the Whole Story
Part II: The Time of Jesus’ Birth
Part III: Jesus’ Parents
Part IV: The Location of Jesus’ Birth
Part V: King Herod
Part VI: Names and Towns

The Bottom Rung of the Social Ladder

The first witnesses of the birth of Jesus in the scriptures (apart from Mary and Joseph) were the shepherds mentioned in Luke 2. While Christmas pageants often depict these shepherds as middling-to-older men with beards and staves, it is much more likely that the shepherds were young girls and (possibly) prepubescent boys. In the Bedouin culture of the Middle East, from ancient times through even today, shepherding is not considered “men’s work”. Rather, it is the bailiwick of unmarried girls, from age 8 through their early teens, and boys, prior to the age of accountability.

We see this in the Old Testament, with the daughters of Jethro and the boy David. In reality, this work is more time-consuming than it is difficult, and the men in the Middle Eastern culture rarely stooped to such work. There are ancient records which also reference this practice, noting that in some judicial matters, it required two shepherds to constitute the same burden of proof as one adult.

And so it is that the witnesses to whom the birth of Christ was announced were the lowest of the low on the social ladder – children watching their family’s sheep. This is incredibly fitting, as it is the last piece of the picture painted in Luke of the coming of Christ.

Seeing The Picture

In Eastern/Hebrew literature, of which the Bible is a prime example, the pictures and symbols in any particular story are just as important, if not more so, than the literal concepts conveyed. And so, when we examine the Christmas story, we have a number of pictures in scripture which paint the picture of coming of God With Us, Emmanuel.

We have the Creator of all that exists, who could have arrived in the greatest of splendor, coming instead in the weakest of human forms – a baby. His earthly parents were not kings or of royalty, but rather teenagers living in the disgrace of their families, unable to get a place to stay in town full of relatives. He arrived not in a great palace, but rather in a stinking shepherd’s cave in the shadow of the greatest palace of one of the greatest kings of the earth. And then, rather than royalty, the witnesses to his birth were the lowest of the low, as well – children staying on the nearby hills watching over their family’s sheep.

In this picture we see that, as he taught 30 years later, Jesus came not to follow the means of worldly power – wealth, politics and strength – but through serving and humility. He was willing to arrive and serve as the lowest of the low, so that we would have an example of what we are to be.

Unfortunately, though, we try to sanitize this story, and in so doing, we miss the picture of the baby who was God With Us.

And how do we celebrate his birthday? By giving gifts to each other, rather than to him. How would you feel if your family held a birthday party for you, but instead of celebrating your birthday and giving you gifts, they left you all alone and went into the other room and exchanged gifts with each other?

If we are really celebrating Jesus’ birthday, we ought to be giving the gifts to him? But how do we do this? He told us:

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

So perhaps it would be best if we celebrated Jesus’ birthday on Sukkot, its likely date in the fall, and that we save the winter celebration in December to celebrate all of the other gifts given to us by God.  And then, rather than Amazon, Ebay and Wal-mart, we could shop for his birthday gifts in places like this, this, this or this.

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Netzer - a shoot from an olive stumpAfter Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

Part I: Getting the Whole Story
Part II: The Time of Jesus’ Birth
Part III: Jesus’ Parents
Part IV: The Location of Jesus’ Birth
Part V: King Herod

As we move toward the end of this series, there are a number of “bit players” – people and places – which have a part to play in the Christmas story. In this article, we will look at a couple of places which figure into the story.

What’s in a Name?

As many biblical scholars and teachers have noted, throughout the Bible, names mean things. To Hebrew readers and listeners, the names of people and places often say as much about a person or a place as any prose that follows the name. For our purposes in this article, I am just looking at a couple of places.

Two cities, in particular, come to play in the story of Jesus’ birth: Bethlehem and Nazareth

The Bakery

Bethlehem, Beit Lehem in Hebrew, means “House of Bread”. In terms of prophecy, this was to be the place where the Messiah was born, per the prophecy in Micah 5:2

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. “

Additionally, as we discussed previously, only lambs raised in the flocks of Bethlehem were acceptable as sacrifices in the Temple during the first century – primarily because the Sadducees owned these flocks and they were a source of wealth for them. And so it is that we have Jesus, the Bread of Life, born in the “House of Bread” – the Lamb of God, born in the flocks of Bethlehem, the only sheep allowed for sacrifice. Do you see the picture that is painted here?

Branch Davidians

In the book of Isaiah 11, we read

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD -

In the Hebrew, a “shoot” from an olive stump (see picture above) is called a netzer. The religious Jews of the first century saw this passage in Isaiah as a prediction of the coming Messiah – a “shoot” from the stump of Jesse. Because of this, it was believed that he would be called netzer in some fashion, as a symbol of this. This led to debate as to whether he would be from netzeret (Nazareth – “shoot-ville”), whether he would be nazir (a Nazarite), or – possibly – both.

As a result of this, the people from Nazareth, known to be fanatically religious, were convinced that the former possibility was true, and that their town would be the home of the future Messiah. The name by which these people called themselves would be translated into English as “Branch Davidians” (yes, you read that correctly), because the branch/shoot from the stump of Jesse (David) would come from their town. Because of this, the people in Nazareth were thought of as being “cultish” and suspect. We even read from one of Jesus’ disciples:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.

And so it was that the coming of the Messiah was announced by John the Baptizer, a nazir, and this Messiah, Yeshua, was a netzer – a shoot – from netzeret. From the Matthew 2:

And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find this prophecy “He will be called a Nazarene”. However, it appears from several sources that this prophecy originated from Isaiah 11, and that Matthew chose the correct interpretation (Nazarene instead of Nazarite) that described Jesus.

And what happened years later in the synagogue at Nazareth?

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

The people were ecstatic! All of those years of being ridiculed for their Messianic beliefs, and finally the Messiah came and proved that they were right all along!

Unfortunately, though, for the people of Nazareth, their faith was in who they were and where they were from and in their ‘rightness’, and it was not in the Lord. And so, when Jesus took them to task for this, he was rejected and took his message elsewhere.

If only this was applicable to us today… or could we, too, be from Nazareth? Could we be so proud of being from the right church, with the right theology, with the right teachers that our own faith is in who we are and not in who He is?*

I would be completely remiss if I did not note that much of the information from this article and this series was provided in essays and lectures by Rev. Ray VanderLaan.

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