The Jewish Gospel of Jesus, Part 4

Though the word gospel has different connotations today, and none of them Jewish, I assure you the gospel of Jesus is a Jewish message. Gospel, as part 1 explained, is a middle English word translating an ancient Greek concept: a message of life and hope delivered by a messenger, usually in a time of fear and war. The gospel of Jesus is found in full form in Mark 1:14-15:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The idea of times or epochs being fulfilled is a concept straight from the pages of the Jewish prophets. The kingdom or rule of God, which is neither a time nor a place, is practically the core message of the Hebrew scriptures. The gospel of Jesus is a Jewish message indeed.

In this fourth installment, we come to the key word, “repent.” There could hardly be a more Jewish idea. Repentance is embodied in the Torah, Psalms, prophets, and the life and teaching of Jesus. It is also a major theme in Judaism since the time of the Bible.

“Great is repentance,” said Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, “which converts intentional sin into unintentional.” This is a subject worthy of study and focus on its own. The sacrifices of Leviticus and of Numbers 15 are said to be for unintentional or inadvertent sin as opposed to high-handed sin. We would all despair of ever hoping to know God’s love had the Torah (and the rabbis) not clarified that repentance is what turns an intentional sin into a sin of straying (cf. Numbers 5:5-8, for example).

Jesus certainly agreed. In his example, a major sinner and an upright religious man prayed to God. The major sinner beat his chest and confessed that he was unworthy while the upright religious man thanked God for not being a major sinner. It was the repentant man who was forgiven, while the relatively righteous but unrepentant man had at least temporarily cut himself off from God (Luke 18:9-14).

“Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds,” said Rabbi Yaakov, “than the entire life of the World to Come.” This deliberately scandalous saying is meant to drive home a simple, insightful truth. In the World to Come there will be no repentance since there is no sin. The one who desires reward in the life to come needs to practice repentance now.

Yet perhaps the most telling Jewish expressions of repentance come from the prophets and Jesus’ interpretation of their words as he mediated interactions between sinners and religious leaders.

There is a persistent theme in the prophets which values obedience above worship, humble acceptance of God’s rule over elaborate shows of prayer, fasting, sacrifice, and giving. The theme is so common, I will give only a few examples from many.

In Isaiah’s first chapter, God asks Israel who commanded them to carry on these feasts and sacrificial ceremonies? God says they are nauseating. Of course the reader knows that God is the one who commanded the ceremonies. So something intriguing is going on. A careful read indicates that the problem is not prayer or sacrifice or God-ordained feasts, but the way the people are doing them. They are following all the commands for worship, but their hearts are not with God and obedience is less common than a leopard without spots.

In Micah’s sixth chapter the prophet sarcastically portrays the people suffering under God’s national judgment shaking their fingers at God and asking, “What do you want from us, rivers of olive oil, thousands of rams, my right arm?” God’s response is a well-known classic, “No, all I ever asked was that you walk humbly, love faithfulness, and pursue justice in the land.”

Hosea, in his sixth chapter, has a similarly surprising twist, “I desire faithfulness, not sacrifice.” (Note: Most translations say mercy and the Hebrew word is notoriously hard to capture in English).

The grandfather of all these passages, however, is in 1 Samuel 15, where the prophet says to the clueless King Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice.”

This prophetic theme has everything to do with repentance, which is the prerequisite to obedience and humbly walking with God.

Jesus not only preached repentance, but he elevated it and demonstrated it in relationships. This was not because Jesus sinned, which he didn’t, but because he welcomed sinners.

Jesus has a consistent critique for the religious leadership of his day. His critique is that they are missing the essential ingredient for speeding God’s kingdom. Some think they can bring the rule of God by making the temple worship grand (Sadducees). Some think they can bring it by violent revolution (Zealots). The most popular group thinks they can bring it by enforcing increasingly stringent practices circumscribing the Torah (Pharisees) and even eliminating heretical groups from the land (Paul in his early days as a Shammaite Pharisee).

When some from the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath (a practice not directly in violation of Torah since the principle is eating and not harvesting), Jesus says, “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

Jesus’ response to these critics bears investigation. It might seem that the root idea is mercy and the lack of which is exhibited by the Pharisees in criticizing hungry Jews picking grain to eat on the Sabbath. But this interpretation misses completely the original meaning of Hosea 6:6, which I am sure Jesus did not miss at all.

Jesus was accusing these particular Pharisees of fumbling the Torah football, of hitting wide of the mark. Their concern for matters of tertiary vigilance against any encroachment of Torah disobedience was straining gnats and swallowing camels. While these Pharisees were busy decreeing that hungry people might not eat food readily available on the Sabbath, the disciples, by contrast, were doing the right thing. They had recognized and were following God’s representative on the earth. They were speeding the coming kingdom while these Pharisees were contributing to its inevitable delay.

A related theme in Jesus’ teaching was that the kingdom would not come by violent revolution. This is not because Jesus opposed righteous war, which is in the Torah. It is because Israel’s problem was not the domination of the Romans, but their own failure to repent and believe.

The rule of God would not come by religious cleansing or by violent revolution. It would come by repentance. As in the days of the judges, Israel was dominated by foreign powers by virtue of faithlessness. The faithful ones who responded to John the Baptizers message and to Jesus’ were the real revolutionaries.

Repentance is the cornerstone of the gospel. Our modern age has seen an emphasis on faith without repentance. Jesus’ own age saw an emphasis on scrupulous Torah vigilance without repentance.

Jesus’ Jewish message of good news calls out to us, “Repent and believe.”

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Gospel, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Theology, Torah, Yeshua. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Jewish Gospel of Jesus, Part 4

  1. judahgabriel says:

    Hi Derek.

    Yet another excellent post from you. I really enjoy these.

    2 questions.

    First, I can already hear my classic Christians friends — “Repentance? The theme of the gospel is confessing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and becoming born-again!”

    Repentance is a Hebrew theme, certainly, but this idea that one must become a “born-again” Christian is certainly not a Hebrew theme. What do you say to this?

    Second question. You touched on how the Pharisees were missing the point when they chided the talmidim about eating grain on the Sabbath. You state they were not breaking the Torah. My question is, what about the other time when Messiah appeared to break Torah? I’m speaking of the time when the adulterous woman was to be stoned, and Jesus stopped them, uttered the famous, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.”, then told her to go on her way and sin no more.

    My question there is, was Messiah breaking the Torah in this case, and does his act here related to the real gospel?

  2. Judah:

    Rebirth is awfully similar to Ezekiel 36:24-27 (not to mention Deuteronomy 30:6).

    The story of the woman caught in adultery is not in any of the early texts, is found in more than one location in later (less reliable) texts, and may or may not be authentic. Possible interpretations of the story are numerous. One thing is certain: that if this story really happened it was a trap. If Yeshua supported stoning, he was in violation of Roman law. And it could be argued he violated Torah if he opposed the stoning. Many unanswered questions plague interpretation (where was the man also caught? what did Yeshua write in the sand?). The story is problematic no matter how you look at it.

    Derek

  3. judeoxian says:

    Derek,

    John 8 may be shaky from a textcrit point of view, but I think it’s solid theologically.

    The Master did exactly what any qualified Torah-judge would do, scrutinize the witnesses. Given that this story closely parallels the apocryphal story of Susanna, and that Daniel disqualifies the witnesses in this story, so does the Master in John 8.

    The issue of testimony is a strong theme throughout the Gospel of John. John 8 is no different. The accusers had no valid witnesses. Yeshua sees through this trap. If he had said, “Stone her,” he’d be guilty of more than just violating Roman law. He would have made a premature judgment that did not align with Torah or halacha.

    As for your blog, you hit the nail on the head regarding the Jewish Gospel.

  4. jonboze says:

    The woman was “caught in the act”. So where was the man? “He who is without sin” may have referred not to sin in the general scene, but a specific, he who is without sin in this matter. In other words, it appears to have been a set up, and Yeshua noticed this. Since none of the “witnesses” remained to accuse her, Yeshua also did not accuse her. He was not a witness.

    To further compound it, from what I understand Jewish tradition accepts the death penalty as the harshest sentence, but not one to be handed out in every case. Further, I’m not certain that a single man can preside over such a trial, especially in the hasty manner that it was set up. Certainly it’s not the clear cut picture that Christianity makes it out to be.

  5. kliska says:

    I’ve been discussing the adulterous woman with several other believers for some time now…and I believe the emphasis is on what becomes crystal clear in New Testament teaching; the fact that those that were bringing the woman before the Lord were just as guilty as she was of stoneable offenses. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t one of the basic ideas of the Law to be that the guilty are brought to justice by those that had not broken the same law? How can accusations be valid by those that have transgressed the law in just as severe a matter to warrant a stoning themselves?

    We are taught that to lust becomes just as grievous a sin, and also we are told in James that if we transgress one point of the Law, we are counted guilty of all. Add to that the fact that Jesus has the right to forgive sin, and I see no transgression of the Law on His part.

    BTW, getting back to your main post, I enjoyed your latest blog,

    Grace and Peace,
    Kliska
    christianscribbler.wordpress.com

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