The New Birth Midrash

The New Birth Midrash

By  Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

The term “born again” as a description of regeneration was coined by Yeshua himself and used by Peter in I Peter 1:23, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”

Jesus’ teaching about the New Birth is a Midrash (explanation and application of an Old Testament text). In the text below, Jesus faults Nicodemus for not understanding the concept of the New Birth already, even if he did not recognize Yeshua’s terminology. Thus the concept of New Birth cannot be an original teaching of Jesus. Nor is its mysterious nature (like the wind) a new teaching. If it were, why would he expect Nicodemus to know this beforehand?

If Yeshua is teaching old material but adding a new phrase (“born again”) to describe that material, we must ask, “What verses did Yeshua draw upon?” My best guess is two passages in Ezekiel and one in I Samuel. Let me lay a foundation first.

The First (Old) Testament typically uses the phrase “circumcision of the heart” to refer to regeneration (see Deuteronomy 30:6, Deuteronomy 5:28-29 and Deuteronomy 10:16 for the phrase or concept).

Look at the text from John 3:1-11, verses that lead up to the well-know John 3:16,

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.

Nicodemus was not just a devout Jew; he was a Rabbi who was also part of the “ruling council” known as the Sanhedrin. It is important to observe that Yeshua expected Nicodemus to be familiar with His teaching that a man must be born of water and the spirit. This implies that whatever Jesus taught was also seen in the Old Testament. To put it simply, God has always regenerated individuals in the same way.

The key to unlocking this mystery is the fact that both the First Testament Hebrew word ruach and the equivalent New Testament word pneuma, can mean “spirit,” “wind,” or “breath.” The interpreter looks at the context to determine which of these terms seems most likely. In this instance, however, the translation is not so obvious.

Since the word ruach incorporates all three of these definitions, Jesus plays on this ambiguity by saying that whom the Holy Spirit regenerates is unpredictable because the “wind blows where it will.” He adds, “so is everyone who is born of the wind” (or spirit).

Here are the passages I believe Jesus expected Nicodemus to recall as a teacher of Israel. These passages deal with being born of water and/or wind. The first is Ezekiel 36:25-27:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Note here that God is the one who causes all this to happen. God sprinkles with clean water, God cleanses, and God provides the new heart and spirit (regeneration). The result is that the person regenerated lives a life of obedience to God.

Although not incorporating the idea of a divine breath, Ezekiel 18:31, we read, “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel?”

This is the equivalent of telling a lost sinner that he must be born again! One the one hand, we know that God is the Sovereign who regenerates in a mysterious and unpredictable way (like the mystery of the wind), yet man is held accountable to acquire a “new heart and a new spirit.” Even in Ezekiel, we see the dual track of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

The second passage is Ezekiel 37:9-10:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Here the mysterious wind of God blows and breaths breath into the slain, and the slain are brought to life. Although we often think of this as an end-time revival of the Nation of Israel, it is also illustrative of the life-giving power of the “breath” (Spirit or wind) of the Lord. Remember that the terms breath, wind, and spirit are potentially interchangeable.

The third passage speaks of King Saul in 1 Samuel 10:6, “The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person….” Although the destiny of Saul is a matter of debate, it appears that he was regenerate and was spiritually transformed.

In conclusion, we can see that Yeshua was illustrating a First Testament truth when he spoke of the New Birth. This truth was so evident in the Tanakh (Old Testament) that he expected Nicodemus to immediately connect the dots. Yeshua clarified the nature of the New Birth, but his teachings on this subject were grounded in existing Scripture.

Have you been brought to spiritual life through the New Birth? The evidence of regeneration is faith in the shed blood of Yeshua to make you right with God, a belief that he also rose from the dead, and a willingness to turn to God through him.

The Original Good Samaritans

The Original Good Samaritans

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

When I was a child, I enjoyed reading Highlights Magazine, a publication for children; the magazine is still flourishing in 2012. One continuous feature of Highlights is a sketch with carefully concealed objects that blend into the picture. In today’s article, I encourage you to sleuth the hidden objects common to two Bible texts.

Most Christians, Messianic Jews, and even the non-devout are familiar with Messiah’s  parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:30-35. Jesus was responding to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” by means of this story. Lois Tverberg, in her book, “Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus,” suggests this parable is based upon a passage in 2 Chronicles 28. I agree with her.

You remember the essentials of the parable, don’t you? A Jewish man was going toward Jericho and was accosted by robbers who left him half dead. A priest and Levite (fellow Jews) passed by and ignored this man’s plight. A man from the despised Samaritan race, however, walked by and had compassion on the man. Luke 10:34-35 [ESV] reads,

“He [the Samaritan] went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”

The tradition of Good Samaritan, however, seems to originate in an obscure passage, 2 Chronicles 28:15. The soldiers of the Northern Kingdom of Israel –Samaria – had slaughtered 120,000 Judeans and captured another 200,000 as slaves. The prophet Obed spoke a word to the Lord shaming the Samaritan Jews and admonishing them to return the captive Judeans to their homeland. Surprisingly, the people responded. As we read the response, be on the lookout for evidence suggesting that the Good Samaritan parable is a midrash (elaboration) upon these historical events. See how many similarities you can note. 2 Chronicles 28:15 reads:

And the men … rose and took the captives, and with the spoil they clothed all who were naked among them. They clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them, and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kinsfolk at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria.

Do you catch the similarities? The city of Jericho is mentioned in both accounts. The people were clothed, given sandals, provided for, anointed, and carried on a donkey. The victims in both instances were Judeans while the heroes were Samaritans.

There are, of course, many differences between these accounts. We have a massive group involved in the 2 Chronicles passage, while only individuals are mentioned in Jesus’ parable. The Samaritans mentioned in the 2 Chronicles account were not the mixed race of Samaritans that existed at the time of Jesus. Ironically, the Samaritan Jews of 2 Chronicles (who were “racially pure”) were idolatrous while the Samaritans of Jesus’ day (of a mixed Jewish and gentile race) worshipped the one true God apart from idols.

In both the historical account and the parable, the emphasis is upon treating people humanely. Compassion is a key word. In the earlier instance, the people had to be admonished by a prophet before they would do the proper and compassionate thing. In the parable, the Samaritan’s conscience and heart were the driving force. No one but he and God could witness his actions.

As at look at both of these texts, I am reminded of something true about myself, and, I believe, each one of us. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am accountable directly to him. He leads me through his Word and his Spirit, and, as I walk in the Spirit, I will manifest the fruit of the Spirit, which is love.

Yet sometimes I must be admonished to do the right thing. Like the Samaritan Jews who had intended to enslave their Judean brothers, I sometimes need to be motivated to do the right thing. This is one reason why I need the Body of the Messiah. And so do you.

I have long marveled at how many Christians consider church (or Messianic Assembly) attendance and church involvement optional. Sunday (or the Sabbath) is considered a family day; if we have no particular activity on our day of worship, then we will congregate. If we can find something we would enjoy more, then that is what we will do it. The concept of Sunday being “The Lord’s Day”  (or, for Messianic Jews, the Sabbath Day) seems all but lost.

Church or Messianic Congregation attendance is not necessary for salvation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But church attendance and involvement (“body life”) are necessary for discipleship and balanced spiritual maturity. Like a piece of chicken on the grill that is never turned over, some believers are burnt on one side and raw on the other. We need both an individual walk and a corporate experience.

I am not among those who legalistically believe a believer has to attend church every Sunday (or a Messianic assembly every Sabbath) without fail. Family reunions or rare events do sometimes legitimately preclude church, in my viewpoint. But the default setting needs to be, “Church attendance is a priority.” Why? Is it just about giving the Lord the first day of our week? Or obeying the concept of Hebrews 10:25? Yes, those are valid reasons. But we also need to hear God’s Word preached, and we need the church body. We sometimes resemble the Jews of 2 Chronicles 28, on the verge of doing the wrong thing. God speaks not only through the man preaching the Word, but he speaks through the Body as we share in Sunday School or fellowship after the service. He speaks through songs and prayers and testimonies. Obed the prophet is not handy to confront us, but the fellowship of believers is even more special. Fellow believer: you need us and we need you.

The original Good Samaritans were not so good. But they did the right thing and became “good” because they heard and obeyed the Word of the Lord. The ideal is to be like the Samaritan man of Yeshua’s parable. I don’t know about you, but I am not always the ideal. I sometimes need an Obed.

 

A Jewish Roots Perspective on Palm Sunday

A Jewish Roots Perspective on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-22)

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

Disciples and Rabbis

Hundreds of sages or rabbis in the first century called disciples who would follow them to receive instruction in the Torah (the Law of Moses) and the oral interpretations of that Law propounded by notable rabbis. It was not unusual for a devout Jewish man to take a hiatus from his career for a month or two to follow a master teacher, traveling with him to minister in small towns and villages.

It seems that The Twelve followed Jesus part time for about two years and full time the last year and a half of his earthly ministry. This was an unusually long –but not unheard of – period of time.

There was nothing odd about a Jewish sage asking men to follow him as his disciples. The culture acclimated people to open their homes to traveling rabbis and their disciples. Jewish leaders established rules to regulate discipleship. For example, a married man could not leave home to follow a rabbi for more than 30 days without permission from his wife.

When Yeshua told his disciples (talmidim) to borrow a donkey and explain that, “the Lord needs them” (Matthew 21:3) — this was not unusual either. The Jewish ethic taught individuals to do what they could to support training disciples, thus promoting Torah study (during that time one studied Torah, he entered “the Kingdom of God”).

As a matter of fact, the Talmud instructs the disciple to prioritize his Rabbi even above his own father:

When one is searching for the lost property both of his father and of his teacher, his teacher’s loss takes precedence over that of his father since his father brought him only into the life of this world, whereas his teacher, who taught him wisdom [i.e., Torah], has brought him into the life of the World to Come. But if his father is no less a scholar than his teacher, then his father’s loss takes precedence…

If his father and his teacher are in captivity, he must first ransom his teacher, and only afterwards his father — unless his father is himself a scholar and then he must first ransom his father. (Bava Metsi’a 2:11)   [Jerusalemperspective.com]

Thus Jesus’ command to love him more than family (Matthew 10:37) or to “let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:21-22) take on new meaning when we understand that these particular teachings were more or less already in circulation.

Messianic Claim

What singled Jesus out from the pack was his Messianic claim which was substantiated by his miracles. The other sages claimed to be nothing more than Bible scholars who were out to train others; Christ claimed this as well, but he implied that he was the promised Messiah. Although a direct claim to be the Messiah would disqualify his authenticity to the Jewish ear (if one claimed to be Messiah, he was ruled out as a fraud), Yeshua admitted to being the Messiah in John 4:25-26 privately. Although he never mouthed the words, “I am the Messiah,” his claim was clearly understood by the religious leaders who sought his crucifixion.

PALM SUNDAY: The Crowd and Their Recognition of Jesus

The rabbis had a difficult time harmonizing how the First Testament presents the Messiah as coming “with the clouds of heaven” in Daniel 7:13 while coming on a donkey in Zechariah 9:9. They chose an either/or interpretation because they did not understand that the Messiah would come twice. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 98a, we read:

...it is written, And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven while elsewhere it is written, behold, your king comes to you … lowly, and riding upon a donkey — if they are meritorious, [he will come] with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon a donkey.

Palm Sunday offers us a picture of Christ as King, and, in a sense, it relates to both comings. Let us explore this special day. Palm Sunday was prophesied in Zechariah 9:9 and Psalm 118:24-27 .  Zechariah 9:9 reads,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!

Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,

humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Psalm 118:24-27 reads,

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we pray, O

Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  We bless you from the house of the Lord.

The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.

Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!

Whereas Zechariah prophesies directly of Palm Sunday, Psalm 118 is an indirect reference; it is thought to picture The Feast of Tabernacles. Yet its implications could easily be understood as prophetic. The Seven Feasts of Leviticus are prophetic of God’s program of redemption. The last of the seven, Tabernacles, is associated with the millennial reign of Jesus (Zechariah 14:17-21). Palm Sunday was a preview – in modern terms, we might say a “commercial”– for his coming millennial reign.

The phrase “Hosanna” is a transliteration (two Hebrew words that are copied into Greek letters) meaning “save us now.” The Palm Sunday crowd connected “he who comes in the name of the Lord” with the Messiah; perhaps they thought of this Psalm and brought palm branches with them in their attempt to fulfill it.

The crowd that hailed Yeshua had merged from two sources: the large group that came from Bethany, where Messiah had just resurrected Lazarus and the crowd of disciples from Galilee, the home of most of his disciples.

When I was a student at Moody Bible Institute, I was blessed to have a class in the Synoptic Gospels with Dr. Paul Benware. I never forget how my mind cleared when he explained that the crowd who hailed Jesus on Palm Sunday (mostly from Galilee) was not the same crowd who yelled, “Crucify Him!” (from Judea). This information ruined some potential sermons on human fickleness!

Dr. Benware also informed us that it seems eleven of the Twelve disciples hailed from Galilee. Only one – Judas – was Judean.

Palm Sunday was an attempt to recognize Jesus as the rightful King of Israel, the Messiah, and the “Son of David.” This title would have been clearly understand as a synonym for the Messiah. There can be little doubt that the Palm Sunday crowd believed that Jesus was indeed the promised Anointed One.

PALM SUNDAY: The Kingdom of God

So this raises the question, “How is Yeshua King, and what is his kingdom? I will offer eight considerations regarding the Kingdom.

  1. In a sense, he came to set up his Kingdom when he told his disciples that the Kingdom of God was among them (Luke 17:21). His Kingdom rule within the family of faith is the Kingdom of God, in one sense of the term. In the Jewish mind (at least within the School of Hillel), one entered the Kingdom whenever one studied Torah.
  1. In a sense, his Kingdom visited earth and transcended time on the Mount of Transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-18). The Transfiguration is one of the most under-appreciated events in the life of Jesus. Peter refers to the Transfiguration as the “coming” of our Lord. Matthew 16:28 ends with a promise that some standing there would see the Kingdom, and Matthew 17 begins with the account of the Transfiguration, the fulfillment of that promise. It was a time warp into the Millennium, a preview of what will one day be for a thousand years.
  1. In a sense, Jesus was crowned King on Palm Sunday by the remnant of faithful Jews who were both Jews without and within (Romans 2:29).

Daniel 9:25-27 leads some scholars (Harold Hoehner, Thomas Constable, et al) to conclude that Palm Sunday occurred on March 30, AD 33.

  1. In a sense, his Kingdom began when Yeshua instituted the New Covenant the evening before his death, for the New Covenant is the Kingdom covenant.
  1. In a sense, the Kingdom began at Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Spirit came with power and young men dreamed dreams.
  1. The Millennium. In the Lord’s Prayer, reference to “thy Kingdom come” was yet future; his presence alone did not fulfill the promised kingdom. One day, we will hear, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever“ (Revelation 11:15). His feet will touch down upon the Mount of Olives when he returns to reign on earth (Zechariah 14:4, Revelation 19:11-16).
  1. In yet another sense, the Kingdom comes when the Millennium gives way to the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21-22).
  1. Sometimes the Kingdom of God may refer simply to heaven. Nicodemus may have been directed toward that Kingdom (John 3:1-21). The thief on the cross asked to be part of Jesus’ Kingdom, and Jesus agreed to allow him to participate, but he would participate in “paradise” (Luke 23:43).

The phrase “Kingdom of God” is a fluid phrase. Hillel believed one entered the kingdom whenever one studied Torah (David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, pp. 17-21). Our best summary might be that God’s Kingdom is unfolding in various aspects, all racing toward the eternal version of that Kingdom, the eternal New Heaven and New Earth.

Although hundreds of people recognized Jesus as Messiah on Palm Sunday, they were a small minority. By the end of the 1st Century, perhaps 20% of the Jewish population had accepted Christ, but the leaders and the majority did not

[Source: An essay by Dr. Louis Goldberg found in the book, The Enduring Paradox, John Fischer, editor, Messianic Jewish Publishers, 2000, p. 114].

To those of us who follow Jesus, he is our King wherever we might be, in heaven or on earth, mortal or immortal. We are part of the Kingdom of God. Within the same week, the King of Glory (Psalm 24:10 with I Corinthians 2:8) would be crucified to atone for our sins; he would leave the ashes of our sins behind in the grave, and rise triumphant. His resurrection would declare him to be the Son of God (Romans 1:4). He ascended to the Father’s throne on high from whence he shall return to reign.

What a marvelous Kingdom, and what a King! Have you bowed the knee to King Yeshua?

 

Jewish Roots Apologetics

Jewish Roots Apologetics

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

In  2012, a (presumably young) man was asking a difficult question on an internet forum in which I participate. It is a forum for conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, so all participants have expressed agreement with a pretty solid doctrinal statement.

[Note: “Sola Scriptura” is Latin for “Scripture Alone” as the infallible authority; here, by “Sola Scriptura,” the questioner is really talking about the truth of Scripture] 

He asked the following question:

Here is my conundrum: I was raised in a Christian home, and have discovered that I have never dealt with the most fundamental premise of my faith.  My starting point has always been Sola Scriptura.  How do I come to Sola Scriptura?  What authority tells me that Sola Scriptura is correct?  I agree to the testimony of Creation that there is a Creator (does not address our canon).  I see in my life how that when I follow biblical principles, I generally do well (but Ben Franklin’s saying would produce similar results).  I see the claims that certain assertions, prophecies, laws, and books within the Bible are the Word of God (Other books do as well).  But what authority grants these particular 66 books authority over my reason?

This man had been raised with a method of defending his faith sometimes called “Presuppositionalism,” a method of defending the faith (apologetics) popular among some (not all) believers who identify themselves as Reformed. Critics of this approach (myself included) suggest Presuppositionalism (on a practical level) boils down to “shout louder.”

Interestingly, those within the forum who advocated the Presuppositional approach had nothing of substance to offer this man. Because I believe God can use reason, I offered this man a brief defense I call “Jewish Roots Apologetics (Defense).” The man thanked me and said I had given him something to think about. Five months later, he is still struggling but hanging in there.

Shortly after I posted my response, I converted my answer into an article for my Midrash Key website. The slightly edited article is below.

Jewish Root Apologetics

When it comes to looking at the Bible from a Jewish Roots perspective, some people think such an approach is “interesting at best, novel at worst.” In reality, however, a Jewish Roots perspective is a great way to defend the conservative approach to our faith and beliefs; it also provides a simple, hands on, “in your face” apologetic (defense) of evangelical belief.

Since evangelical belief is derived from the Scriptures, how do you demonstrate the reasonableness of accepting the Scriptures? Here is a broad outline that is obviously crying for expansion, but is useful even in its simple state.

  1. The universe exists and so do I; complexity of engineered creation and human instinct/conscience both argue simply for a creator. It is natural to believe in the supernatural.
  1. One nation (and only one nation) stands out as God’s special nation, Israel. From it not only flow 3 of the world’s great religions, but it has continued to exist for nearly 1900 years without a homeland. Its people were the subject of attempts at genocide — and by all reason — should not have survived. Events occurring on the 9th of Av [see below] are logically more than merely coincidental, displaying God’s wrath –but continued interest — in this people. As a matter of fact, Israel is one coincidence after another.
  1. Israel came back into being in 1948. The Soviet dictator, Stalin, who was anti-Semitic, could have blocked the UN resolution. He was either on a manic high (it is postulated) at the time and let it ride or, some suggest, he thought that Israel’s existence would drive the Arabs to ally themselves with the USSR. For one reason (or non-reason), he did not block U.N recognition, which he could have. President Truman’s advisors and cabinet were against allowing the UN resolution, but Truman was for Israel, standing alone.
  1. Israel was significantly outnumbered time and time again, but kept gaining more ground every time they were attacked. Israel won all wars waged against them: in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2008. And they were outnumbered as much as 20-1 in terms of size of army, number of tanks, planes, and equipment.
  1. This survival of Israel must occur if the Biblical end time prophecies are to be fulfilled as promised. Thus if the Bible were true, we would expect Israel to survive.
  1. If Israel is God’s special nation, then the Hebrew Scriptures are therefore likely supernatural, or at least the most significant in terms of revealing God. The same First (Old) Testament evangelical protestants use is the Tannakh (Law/ Prophets/ Writings) of Judaism.

The Second (New) Testament writers quote from the vast majority of those books as Scripture, but quote none of the Apocryphal books as Scripture. At the time of Yeshua (Jesus), every OT book was recognized with the exception of Song of Solomon which was finally decided for inclusion at Yavneh (Jamnia) by the end of the first century CE.

  1. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) predict a Messiah who would atone for sin (Isaiah 53) and reign (Isaiah 2). This Messiah had to be cut off before Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD (Daniel 9:25-27). Yeshua (Jesus) is the only viable candidate for Messiah previous to 70 AD. The details of his birth, life, and death are predicted in the Old Testament.
  1. Jesus founded the church and trained his authoritative emissaries (apostles) to lay the ground work, and thus their teachings were authoritative (Ephesians 2:20). There is no question that Jesus left behind a group of followers.
  1. Although we cannot be sure that every book belongs in the New Testament canon (except by faith in God’s providence), strong evidence exists for most of the canon. Most New Testament books were authored by apostles, and the rest by close associates of the apostles; thus it is reasonable to believe that they do belong. A few books have been questioned as canonical (esp. 2 Peter and Jude), but the bulk are clearly authoritative and present a thorough Christian belief system.
  1. Christianity is best understood as Trans-cultural Messianic Judaism. Much of Christianity today has a European slant and has been mixed with elements from paganism, but we need to remember that Christianity is actually a Jewish faith and is best interpreted from the Jewish perspective and a return to Scripture over accumulated traditions.

Conclusion: All of the above could be explained as remote and remarkable coincidence. Yet one can see that the a person truly seeking God is not without a clear, logical path to faith in Jesus.

Appendix: The 9th of Av

Here is a list of disasters that the Jewish people experienced ALL on the 9th of Av (occurs sometimes in July, sometimes in August in our calendar; the events listed below happened on the very day of the 9th of Av):

586 BC- First Temple destroyed by the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar.

587BC – Judeans sent to Babylonian exile

70 AD —Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans, led by Titus.

135 AD- The Romans defeat Bar Kochba’s last fortress, Betar, and destroy his army. Bar Kochba himself is killed along with more than 100,000 other Jews. The Roman Emperor Hadrian turns Jerusalem into a Roman city.

1290 AD–King Edward I of England signs an edict expelling all Jews from England.

1306AD—The Jews were expelled from France

1492 AD – The Alhambra Decree takes effect, expelling the Jews from Spain and from all Spanish territories.

1914 AD – World War I begins when Germany declares war on Russia, setting the stage for World War II and the Holocaust.

1940 AD – Himmler presents his plan for the “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem to the Nazi Party.

1942 AD – Nazis begin deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. [source: http://judaism.about.com and Wikipedia.org, edited]

Remembering to Bless God

Remembering to Bless God

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

We have been studying I Samuel in our Sunday night Bible study. In I Samuel 1:28, we read of one who “worshiped the LORD.” In the context, this one seems to be the very young Samuel, perhaps as young as 3 years old.

The text reads, “’Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.’ And he worshiped the Lord there.”

In Genesis 24:26-27, when Abraham’s servant was blessed in his search for a mate for Isaac, we read, “. .The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.’”

There are other similar examples throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 24:48, Exodus. 4:31, Exodus 12:27, I Chronicles 29:3, Nehemiah 8:6).

There seemed to be two elements to worshiping the LORD in the above contexts: (1) bowing down, (2) blessing the Name of the LORD for some reason. In the case of Abraham’s servant above, the reason is stated: “‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.’” The blessing defines what is meant by “worshiped.”

The Jewish people have long embraced blessing the Lord or blessing his name. Thus “worshipping the Lord” would be understand as bowing and either reciting a memorized blessing (as the young lad Samuel probably did), or spontaneously blessing the Lord (as Abraham’s servant did).

The Jewish tradition is to bless God’s Name for the food he provided, not to “bless the meal.” We should understand statements, like Jesus “blessed the bread” (Luke 24:30) to mean, “he blessed the LORD for providing the bread.” Jewish leaders have written scores of blessings for every experience of life, a few of which date back to the time of Jesus. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the light of fire. (This is said before lighting candles)
  • Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. (This is said before eating bread)
  • Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the trees. (This is said before eating fruit)
  • Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the vine. (This is said before drinking wine)
  • Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who made creation. (This is said on seeing lightning, a high mountain or a great desert)
  • Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who made the sea. (This is said on seeing the sea)
  • One important blessing is said for new things such as: Wearing new clothes for the first time, tasting a particular fruit for the first time in its season, moving into a new home, the first day of a festival. “
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season.”

[Source: http://www.icteachers.co.uk]

Many of these blessings developed during the Middle Ages, and we might argue about the practicality of them. Repeated blessings can easily deteriorate into meaningless repetition. Still, the idea of looking for opportunities to bless God is a valid pursuit, which is my point.

Although there are many commands to praise the Lord in psalm and music (see Psalm 145-150), this refers mostly to (1) singing Psalms acapella, as, for example, the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-124) which were sung as pilgrims were ascending to Jerusalem to celebrate a festival, or (2) celebrating with choirs and instruments at the Temple experience itself (for most, during a festival). Psalms may have been sung even while folks were laboring in the fields, much as slaves labored to spirituals.

Although Exodus 23:17 commands men to visit the Temple three times a year, many devout Jews made the journey only once a year, sometimes every several years, once in a lifetime, or not at all. Jews living near Jerusalem were much more likely to visit the Temple consistently for the three annual feast clusters. The Jewish leaders elsewhere would send representatives from each village to offer sacrifices on behalf of the rest of the Jewish population in that town. Actually seeing the Temple was a rare privilege for most and should not be correlated with a church gathering. The New Testament correlation is that believers are God’s temple, both individually (I Corinthians 6:19) and collectively (I Peter 2:5).

Especially before the advent of the synagogue (about 850 years after Moses), the weekly Sabbath centered on families. Reciting the Scriptures, prayer, singing a psalm, and intentionally blessing the Name of the Lord for his blessings or his attributes were the most practical ways to worship God within the routine of life.

Our challenge, even in the Messianic era, is to cultivate these habits. While we may practice most of the above, many of us need to add “blessing the Lord” to our list of habits. We should aim to bless (and thank) God frequently for the many joys and even the routines of life.

 

The Connection Between Jacob and Nathaniel (Bartholemew)

The Connection Between Jacob and Nathaniel (Bartholemew)

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

How can we escape this reality: sometimes life is scary!? This is especially true when we are forced out of our “happy ruts” by disturbing circumstances, reversals, or crises. Although sometimes we create our own problems, very often we are vulnerable to the choices others make, or to circumstances beyond our control.

For centuries, God’s children have turned to the Word for strength. In the book of Genesis, chapter 28 (verses 10-20), we read about the first major crisis in the life of Jacob. As we look at how God ministered to Jacob during this crisis, we can note God ministered (in one way or another) through his Word.

  1. God Reassured Jacob through his spoken Word

Jacob’s crisis (28:10-11) was life changing. He was not only forced to leave home without much warning, he also had to leave his country! As far as we know, he had never been outside the land of Canaan. He fled for this life because, after stealing his brother’s birthright and blessing , his brother Esau was plotting to kill him. He fled without a job, journeying hundreds of miles to hopefully be welcomed by relatives he had only heard about.

In times of crisis, we are both vulnerable and open. Many people come to faith in Christ during a crisis, but many people are drawn toward false religions during a time of crisis or misery. Which direction would Jacob take? Would he mover toward the one true God, or gravitate toward the popular religious beliefs of Canaan? In this instance, it was God — and not the devil — who got a hold on Jacob.

In verse 12, Jacob experiences an amazing dream: he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Verses 12-13 read:

 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring…”

This dream was sent by God to strengthen Jacob and remind Jacob of his sovereign rule over earth from heaven. Indeed, the dreams location, Bethel, became a permanent reminder to Jacob about where he met God in a powerful way. He constructed an altar to the Lord, and looked forward to the day he could return to Bethel. He now knew God would take care of him.

This dream, however, was also prophetically “planted” for a later meaning.

About two thousand years later, Nathaniel (aka, Bartholomew) was contemplating this text as he sat alone under a fig tree. Jacob, the deceitful founder of the Jewish nation, was a trickster full of guile. He had cheated his brother out of his birthright. How, Nathaniel must have wondered, could God bless this man and change his name to Israel? He had been deep in thought.

His time of contemplation was cut short by his friend Philip, who ran to him in excited fashion. Philip claimed he had met the Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth. When Nathaniel heard that this supposed Messiah hailed from Nazareth, he spoke with sarcasm, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

He decided to humor Philip and meet this one who was supposed to be the Messiah. We pick up the text with John 1:47-49

 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”  Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

This passage seems mysterious, at first, if the reader does not connect these two texts. But it makes perfect sense: only Nathaniel and God knew what he was thinking, reading, and contemplating. Since Jesus knew, he therefore must be divine! And Nathaniel was completely right.

Nonetheless, Nathaniel (and all the disciples) needed the courage of Jacob to chart an unknown course — disciples of the Messiah.  Disciples and rabbis were a common sight in Israel, each rabbi at times traveling the countryside like Jesus and his disciples. But to follow the rabbi who might be the Messiah and could heal the blind, raise the dead, and quell a stormy sea — that is venturing into the unknown territory!

  1. Jacob sets an example for us: the need for mechanisms

We already mentioned that Jacob set up an altar at Bethel as a result of his dream. So we, too, must set up what I call “mechanisms,” systems that help us nurture our walk with God. Most of us realize this, and some of us never will: Good intentions often do not bear fruit unless we set up the mechanism.

A mechanism is a system or a series of routines. For example, coming to church and Sunday School weekly is a mechanism to guarantee some Biblical nutrition. A weekly Bible study can be another mechanism. Daily devotions are another mechanism. Listening to the Bible read online can be another mechanism.

A routine time for prayer is yet another. Without a system, good intentions remain merely intentions.

Jacob built an altar, he offered prayer to God, and made a vow to give the Lord a tithe. The latter was particularly a mechanism to remind him to honor the Lord as part of his daily life, not just while he was in Bethel.

The prophet Daniel would pray three times daily toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10). The Feasts of Israel (Leviticus 23) as well as the weekly Sabbath were mechanisms for faithful Jews to spend time in the Word, worshipping and honoring God and building spiritual depth within their families. Daily memorization and discussion of Scripture was to be the norm (Deuteronomy 6:7)

III. The fringe benefits

Jacob found courage to face change he had never expected. A new country, a new family, a new vocation, and a new language were in his future. He would have the challenge of working for a relative that was twice the trickster that Jacob was, and he would eventually return home with two wives, servants, and a growing family. Nathaniel found the courage to take a risk that Yeshua was the promised Messiah, a frightening proposition at the time.

So we too have many challenges to face. The journey of life itself is filled with twists and surprises. Our nation is changing so quickly we can barely keep up with what is happening. The church world is topsy-turvy as groups cave in to the culture and fads engulf even the faithful. For this, we have God, our Rock, and a Savior, Jesus Christ, who is “…the same yesterday and today, and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8).

The Royal Line and Nazareth

The Royal Line and Nazareth

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

Although the Christmas tree has pagan origins, Christians have embraced its beauty for centuries as an important centerpiece of Christmas décor. I am suggesting that the Christmas tree branch should stir us most. Why is that?

Although we associate Christmas with Bethlehem, our Lord was conceived and reared in the small village of Nazareth in Israel’s northern province, Galilee. This is where Mary and Joseph grew up and lived. This is where an angel appeared to Mary and announced that she would mother the Messiah. This is where Joseph received a vision in a dream, assuring him that Mary truly had conceived while yet a virgin. The espoused couple travelled to the original city of David, Bethlehem, leaving what might be called the new village of David’s heirs, Nazareth.

A number of authorities have postulated that the name “Nazareth” was derived from the Hebrew word for “branch,” netzer. Paul Wallace (John’s Rabbi, kindle edition) writes, “When the Scriptures tell us that Jesus was a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23), they [are referring to] …the family line of David. Isaiah 11:1 predicts the coming of the Messiah. ‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch (netzer) will bear fruit.’”

John Gill(www.biblestudytools.com, commenting on Matthew 2;23), adds, “’a branch shall grow out of his roots’; a prophecy owned by the Jews themselves to belong to the Messiah, and which was now fulfilled in Jesus; who as he was descended from Jesse’s family, so by dwelling at Nazareth, he would appear to be, and would be ‘called a Nazarene, or Netzer, the branch’; being an inhabitant of … Netzer, so called from the multitude of plants and trees that grew there.”

Although Gill’s explanation for the name of this village is viable, another (and I believe better) explanation is advanced by Wallace. He quotes Abrgil Pixner (With Jesus Through Galilee, p. 16) , who suggests, “One can justly assume that …Nazareth (Little-Netzer) acquired its name from a Davidic clan, that presumably came from Babylon around the year 100 BC.” Thus netzer refers to David’s direct descendants.

Although this may come as a suprise, most of us reading this article have descended from David — although we probably have none of his genetic material. We are neither ruling descendants nor direct descendants. Why would I say such a thing?

Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines, thus producing a vast set of heirs. Solomon’s daughters would have married into the royalty of neighboring nations. This was a common practice at the time, and helped form political alliances. Some of these granddaughters 9born outside of Israel) would have been sent even further away from center.

Considering this all longstanding Europeans (except for more recent immigrants) are descended from the 8th century A.D. Emperor Charlemagne (see phenomena.nationalgeographic. com/2013/05/07/charlemagnes-dna-and-our-universal-royalty/), it is just as likely that Europeans, Middle Easterners, many Africans and many Asians have descended from Solomon, since Solomon descended from David, and David descended from Abraham. Abraham truly is the father of MANY nations. When you read about the patriarchs in your Bible, you are likely reading about your forefathers!

Lest you misunderstand me, I am not saying most of us are Jews or Hebrews. I am saying that some of our ancestors were. Without getting into the complexities of genetics, the only way to keep a line traceable is through the male Y chromosome.

The fact that perhaps all or most Jews were descended from David does not mean they were all royalty. The royal line is passed down from firstborn son to firstborn son. Thus it becomes important to note that Jesus was Mary’s firstborn (Luke 2:7).

Jesus descended genetically from David through the non-ruling Davidic line of Mary, but the virgin-conceived boy was legally Joseph’s son. Joseph — also a descendant of David but through the ruling line — must have been the oldest son in the line of David. Since the line of David had not been recognized (politically) for centuries, Joseph supported himself in the construction trade, working with stone and wood (the word “carpenter” only captures some of the meaning of the Greek word).

Still, there may have been some special respect given to the essentially powerless ruling line of David. The following quotation from the Talmud [Sanhedrin 43a] — notes that Jesus’ was somehow legally privileged (probably because of his royal family). Also worth noting is the information about “the 40 day warning” this may be the reason for the tone of gloom we see in John 7:1 and John 11:16.

“…it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! — Ulla retorted: ‘Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a Mesith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him? With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government [or royalty, i.e., influential].’”

Jesus had four brothers and several sisters (Matthew 13: 55-56). Evidence and logic suggests to me that Jesus’ four brothers and sisters were younger than he; he was Mary’s firstborn (Luke 2:7), not her only born. Joseph kept her a virgin only until Jesus was born (Matthew 1:25).

Since Roman Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, they have pictured Joseph as an older man and sometimes account for Jesus’ brothers as actually Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage (he was postulated to be a widower). The argument that Joseph was dead before Jesus began his ministry is sometimes used to support this theory.

Modern Catholics are more prone to suggest that the term “brothers and sisters” is to be taken in a looser sense as “relatives.” We choose the more straight-forward understanding, that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were the natural offspring of Joseph and Mary and were younger than Jesus.

If Nazareth was a haven for the royal line, then it is probable that several false claimants to the messianic throne may have surfaced in that community, explaining the skeptical nature of the town’s inhabitants toward Jesus.

Wallace comments: “Nevertheless we find this phrase from the future disciple Nathaniel, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth’ (John 1:46). Excavations show that Nazareth was only a village of about 150 people at the time. It may be that the inhabitants had some arrogance attached to their Davidic lineage that was despised by other Galileans. Perhaps Nathaniel was saying, ‘Oh no! Not another one!’”

Since the prophecy of Daniel (Daniel 9: 25) established the time when the Messiah could be expected, and since the Messiah was a ruling descendant of David, perhaps several rabbis from Nazareth sincerely wondered if they were the Messiah? Jesus, on the other hand, seemed an unlikely candidate to his fellow Nazarenes. They even tried to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:16-30).

Although most residents of Nazareth thought Jesus an unlikely Messiah, we who have believed in him are willing to accept the scandal and rejection associated with his Name. We dare to believe that God became a man and entered our world two thousand plus years ago. We believe that he was born to die that we might live. We believe he arose from the dead after atoning for our sins upon the cross.

This Christmas, while you are appreciating your beautifully decorated Christmas tree, think of the Branch (netzer) of David who came to earth for you! What a gift!

 

The Discreet Holy Spirit

The Discreet Holy Spirit

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

One of the benefits of “book-by-book expository preaching” is that the preacher-teacher is more likely to present God’s balance of truth. But it is not merely a matter of teaching everything — it is also a matter of emphasis. Preaching book by book puts the emphasis upon what God’s Word emphasizes! This is especially true when the point of the text is the point of the sermon.

But the Scriptures are not evenly distributed by topic. This is particularly true when it comes to the Holy Spirit. Although the Holy Spirit is discussed in many Scriptures, He is absent from many more. This might seem odd because the Holy Spirit Himself has inspired all Scripture.

In light of this seeming disparity, I would like to contemplate two issues about the Holy Spirit: His “behind the scenes” influence (His preferred discretion) and his role as the “Divine Finisher.” These issues have been discussed since the early centuries of Christianity, but do not receive much air time today.

The Spirit Behind the Scenes: Discretion

When I preached through the Book of Colossians last year, one point I noted was that the Holy Spirit was only mentioned once within the entire book of Colossians.

What is said to be the result of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 5:18-21 is said to be the result of the Word of Christ in Colossians3:16-17. Here, Paul felt no obligation to give the Spirit credit for the Spirit’s work behind the scenes, yet elsewhere he instructs us that it is, in fact, the Spirit who is at work. We see this phenomenon throughout the Word.

God is said to have parted the waters of the Red Sea (Joshua 4:23), yet Isaiah implies that the Holy Spirit was involved: “Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses…?” (Isaiah 63:11b-12a).

Psalm 43:3a reads, “Send out your light and your truth, let them lead me.” Yet in Psalm 143:10, David writes, “Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground.” We could postulate that God sends “light and truth” via the leading of the Spirit.

In Psalm 16:7, David writes, “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel, in the night also my heart instructs me.” Here we see David attributes the counsel he receives as being from the Lord, but — at the same time — coming from within his heart. This is a good description of our perception when the Holy Spirit leads us. Although this direction comes from God (particularly God the Spirit), we often sense this leading as a conviction or direction impressed upon our hearts. At least, that is how many of us understand the Spirit’s leading.

Jesus spoke about the fact that the Holy Spirit would shine the spotlight upon Jesus, not himself. In John 16:13-14 we read:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The Persons of the Godhead seek to bring glory to one another. Jesus made it clear that all are to revere the Holy Spirit when He stated, “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” in Matthew 12:32.

This may even be an amplification of the command not to take God’s Name in vain (Exodus 20:7). Because the Spirit is discreet does not mean He is somehow lesser than the other Persons of the Godhead. He is the only Person of the Trinity so honored!

In the above context, unbelieving Jewish leaders were attributing Jesus’ miracles — works empowered by the Holy Spirit — as being the doings of Satan. Such an attribution is the blasphemy against the Spirit.

We believe that all of Jesus’ miracles were worked with the Father’s permission and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, only rarely, do we see Jesus calling attention to the Spirit.

My way to describe this is to say that the Holy Spirit seems to prefer to be discreet. Why this is so remains a mystery, but perhaps the answer lies in personality. The One God is Three Persons, each of which fully possesses all the attributes of deity. Yet the Persons of the Godhead are three distinct Persons — three distinct Personalities. Whether what appears to be personality differences are innate — or simply the result of the roles each Person plays in the plan of redemption — is not something we can know.

This is not to say that the Holy Spirit received NO attention or credit for His doings. On Pentecost, for example, the power of the Holy Spirit was manifest, and He was glorified. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is the one who sanctifies us (see Romans 8, the entire chapter), and is given quite a bit of attention in this chapter.

Even in salvation, the Holy Spirit is only partly in the limelight. We are held responsible to be born again, yet it is the Spirit who works invisibly within to make this happen (Acts 2:40, John 3:1-16). God expects us to understand his Word (Deuteronomy 30:11-14), yet we cannot unless the Spirit opens our eyes (2 Corinthians 3:13-18).

Just because the Holy Spirit is not always mentioned as part of a certain process or ministry does not mean He is not the active One behind it. He chooses to be the discreet member of the Trinity.

The Holy Spirit as Finisher

The creation account in Genesis one mentions — in a way — the Three Persons of the Trinity. God (the Father) creates the universe through speaking the Word (the Son), and the Holy Spirit hovers (1:2). The hovering Holy Spirit seems to somehow finishes the initial work of creation.

This same pattern is seen in the plan of salvation. The Father sends the Son to atone for sins. After His resurrection and 40 day “proof period,” the Son ascends back to the Father. Ten days later, the Holy Spirit descends on Pentecost to finish what has been started, and the church Jesus founded becomes one body empowered (I Corinthians 12:13).

He enables us to witness (Acts 1:8) to finish the Kingdom work Jesus began. There are many references to what the Holy Spirit does for us — things like gifting, leading, strengthening, comforting, enlightening, guiding, etc.

He finishes the work of Christian growth started at conversion through sanctifying us — helping us become more holy. Romans 15:16b reads, “… the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit…”

The New Testament authors do not always give credit specifically to the Holy Spirit, but He is often understood as the active power behind God’s work in us. Thus, when Pau writes in Philippians 2:13, “… for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” we know — from other passages — that the One working is understood as “God the Spirit.” As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Applications

  1. Because the writers of Scripture recognized but did not feel obligated to constantly mention the Spirit as the power behind the Christian life — neither must we. On the other hand, at times they did point out this fact — so should we.
  1. Many of the works of the Holy Spirit are generically attributed to God, not usually specifying the Person of the Godhead involved. We should feel comfortable doing the same thing.
  1. The mention of the Holy Spirit is concentrated within certain portions of Scripture. For example, there are over 110 references to the “Holy Spirit” (not including synonyms like “Spirit” or “Comforter) in the Bible (ESV). More than 41 of the 110 are found in the book of Acts. Thus, as I preach, you can expect an imbalance in addressing the Holy Spirit simply because the Scriptures are imbalanced.
  1. The Spirit is out to glorify the Son, as quoted above. We normally think of praying in the Spirit, not to the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18). This does not mean it is wrong to worship the Spirit. In the epistles, praying and other acts of worship are typically directed to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, but this does not mean it is not wrong to pray to or worship the Holy Spirit — just not the emphasis of Scripture. We see something similar in regards to praying to the ascended Jesus, with only one clear precedent for doing so (Acts 7:59).
  1. The Holy Spirit’s Name is to be revered! We should never use the leading of the Spirit as a way to shift blame or responsibility from ourselves. Better to say, for example, “I think I need to break up with you because you are not the right one for me” rather than, “The Holy Spirit [or God] has led me to break up with you.” Although such a break up might be God’s will, we don’t want to use the Holy Spirit as a scapegoat.

The Holy Spirit is constantly and discreetly active in your life if you are a believer. He dwells within you. Make your resident guest comfortable!

 

Where Did Discipleship Come From?

Where Did Discipleship Come From?

By Ed Vasicek

[For more info, see my first book, The Midrash Key]

Some people believe that Jesus invented the concept of discipleship. This is certainly a false assumption. Discipleship was an embedded ethic within Judaism for centuries before Jesus was born. Hundreds of Rabbis roamed the countryside during the time of Jesus, each with a band of disciples. Godly Jews were trained to house, feed, and otherwise care for rabbis and their disciples as they entered town. Indeed, their sons would one day follow a rabbi as disciples, roaming the countryside for weeks or months.

Although the Rabbis held the relationship between Moses and Joshua (and the 12 elders) as a model for discipleship, the Rabbis particularly viewed the relationship of Elijah and Elisha as the ideal model of a rabbi and his disciples, as Spangler and Tverberg note in Sitting At the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. This little-known fact opens the door to a proper understanding of what discipleship really entails, especially when distilled and applied beyond the Jewish culture.

Jesus’s Teachings About Discipleship: A Midrash on I Kings 19:19-21

I am convinced that Jesus derived his basic teachings about discipleship from expounding the Elijah and Elisha example. I am suggesting that these texts are correlated: I Kings 19:19-21, Luke 9:57-62, Matthew 19:21, and Luke 5:27. These verses are quoted from the New King James Version:

I Kings 19:19-21, So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth. Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah, and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.”

And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?”

So Elisha turned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant.

Luke 9:57-62: Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

Then He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.”

And another also said, “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Matthew 19:21: Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Luke 5:27: After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

 Parallel Ideas

Note how Elijah seems to appear abruptly to Elisha, without formal notice. We can assume that Elijah and Elisha had experienced previous interaction. Elijah expects Elisha to drop whatever he is doing.

When he requests to kiss his father and mother before he leaves to follow Elijah, it is difficult to interpret Elijah’s response, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” Perhaps the best interpretations are that either Elijah forbade Elisha from kissing his parents goodbye, or that he grudgingly allowed it. When the text says, “So he went back…” we are told that he went back to slaughter the oxen. There is no actual mention of him returning to actually bid his parents farewell, so his going back may have been a return simply to “close shop.”

In another vein, a simple “goodbye” kiss may not be what Elisha had in mind; he may have implied a traditional, lengthier delay, using the idea of “the kiss” as representative for the final act of departure. This compares amazingly with Jesus’s answer to the man who wanted to bury his dead father: “Let the dead bury their dead.” In this instance, the one-year period between initial burying and retrieving and sealing the bones in an ossuary is probably in mind. (See Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vo. 4, p. 133).

Elisha slaughtered his oxen and gave the meat to the people (“the poor”). He did not necessarily sell all his possessions, but disposed of whatever had to be maintained by him — and thus might impede him from following Rabbi Elijah. In the Matthew 19:21 call to discipleship, Jesus commanded the prospective disciple to sell all that he had (perhaps all that required attention?), thus removing all distractions.

Jesus did not typically make this demand. Peter, Andrew, James, and John, for example, retained their boats and fishing business. As a matter of fact, they followed Jesus part-time — returning to their fishing business between trips — for two years. They followed him “full time” for the last one and a half years. But they set their business aside for a time, resuming it again after the resurrection.

We must not confuse Jesus’s demand in this or related instances as a permanent way of life, but as a temporary relinquishment while a disciple was pursuing a deeper relationship with God through following a rabbi for a finite period of time.

The call to serve Jesus is a life-long call, but the call for intense spiritual training and indoctrination was a temporary call. We might compare becoming a “disciple” to enrolling in a modern Bible college or seminary. And, believe it or not, other rabbis made similar demands on their disciples. The only thing unusual about Jesus’ discipleship demands is Who Jesus is, not the demands themselves.

Jesus’s Teachings in Light of Hillel’s precedent

Let’s note the similarities between Jesus’ discipleship teachings and those of Hillel (died in 10 A.D.), the Jewish Rabbi who whose legacy is seen in even modern Judaism.

He [Hillel] would stand at the gate of Jerusalem and meet people going to work. He questioned them, “How much will you make at work today?” One person would answer, “A denarius.” Another replied, “Two denarii.” Then he would ask them, “What will you do with your earnings?” They would reply, “We will buy what we need to live.” Then he challenged them, “Why don’t you come follow me and acquire knowledge of the Torah. Then you will receive life in this world as well as life in the future world?” In this way Hillel lived all his days and was able to bring many people under the wings of Heaven.” (Avot R. Nat)

So much more to examine…

The similarities between Elijah (or Elisha) are bountiful, some of which include fasting 40 days (I Kings 19:5-9), multiplying loaves and fishes (2 Kings 4:42-44), resurrecting the dead (I Kings 17:22-24, and having a disciple (Gehazi and Judas) who betrays his rabbi and is cursed (2 Kings 5:21-27), among others.

From 2 Kings 1:1-12, the passage in which Elijah discourages Elisha from following him before Elijah is swept up in a chariot, Jesus very well could have derived the idea of making it difficult for potential disciples to follow him. Teachings like “counting the cost,” “taking up the cross daily,” etc. may have been either midrashim or at least connected to this text. Other rabbis expressed the hardship involved with being either a rabbi or a disciple.

Conclusion

Bible believing Christians need to rethink the subject of discipleship. Since the early believers were called “disciples,” and since many of them did not physically leave their vocations to follow Jesus, we need to ask what discipleship means in the trans-cultural sense. I do not claim to have the complete answer, but I will assert that a disciple is one who desires to study, learn, and grow in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” in concert with fellow haverim. Believers who have little desire to study are not disciples. And not all those who study are believers.

The Word Became Man At Christmas: A Jewish Roots Perspective

 

The Word Became Man At Christmas: A Jewish Roots Perspective

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

Charles Wesley wrote my favorite Christmas carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It is a theological masterpiece. One noteworthy phrase is “Veiled in flesh the godhead see; hail the incarnate deity.” Most of us would never join a church that denied that Christ is God in the flesh. Yet we may wonder about why John’s Gospel first presents the Messiah as “the Word.” The short answer is this: “The Jewish understanding of the living Word was that of one who was divine yet distinct from the Father.” Let me elaborate.

A New Testament midrash is a Jewish explanation, teaching, interpretation, or application of an Old Testament text. When Jesus talks about how He will be lifted just as the serpent in the wilderness was lifted up (John 3:13-17), I consider His words a midrash on Numbers 21:8-10. My book, The Midrash Key, demonstrates how we can better understand New Testament texts when we couple them with their Old Testament source texts. This article about “the Word” could have been another chapter in its own right!

Sometimes a midrash is not merely based upon a single Old Testament text, but, rather, on a series of scattered verses. Such is the case with John’s assertion about the pre-existence of the Messiah as the Eternal Word of God and as God Himself.

Note the background to the Concept of God’s Creative Word in John 1:1-3. The ESV reads,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made..

We can see that the Word was always with God (1). This takes us back to Genesis 1, where we repeatedly read, “And God said…” Most readers with any fluency in the Old Testament would make this connection.

In the very center of Genesis 1:1, (“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth”) is a word that is considered an object marker, a word particle that is not translated. Although not translated, this word helps us understand how to translate another word. This “hidden word” consists of the first and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph and Tav. Is it possible that John the Apostle is playing on this hidden word? He might be.

In Revelation, Jesus refers to himself as the Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet), the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). If we go from Greek to the Hebrew alphabet, then we might conclude that God the Son is present (hidden) in the center of first verse of the Bible as Aleph Tav. This is an intriguing possibility, even if admittedly speculative.

Moving on to surer footing, observe that the Greek New Testament word for “word” is “logos,” the title used here for the Son of God. The Word (God the Son) has always existed. Although the Word is God, He is distinct from God the Father because He is with Him, face to face.

When speaking of myself, I refer to myself as “I” or “me,” not “he” or “him.” But God does both. In several places in the Old Testament, God refers to Himself in both the first and third persons (Zechariah 2:8-10 and 12:8-10 come to mind). Thus the doctrine of the Trinity is laced throughout Scripture, or at least room for that doctrine. God is one, yet He is more than one person. Heh He is three distinct persons (Matthew 28:19-20). We will find that John’s teaching about the Word (logos) is not unique to Christianity, but part of ancient Judaism.

  1. The idea that the Word is God and yet distinct is seen in Judaism (John 1:1)

The Word is both deity and yet distinct from God (the Father). This is demonstrated in the fact that it was appropriate for the Psalmist to direct praise to the Word. In a religion whose pillar was worshiping God alone, David makes what could be considered a blasphemous statement if the Word were not God. In Psalm 56:4 he says, “In God, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” David understood what later Jews understood, that the Word of God was personal, distinct from the Father, and yet God.

Let me share some quotations from the Targums (Jewish paraphrases and expansions of Scripture written in Aramaic; these were written by Jews for Jewish communities before, during, and after the time of Jesus). These Targums are not merely paraphrases (like The Living Bible), but include interpretational additions to help readers understand the meaning. Although these interpretations are debatable, they show the thinking of the ancient Jewish community, thinking that was part of the Jewish context during the New Testament era.

The Targum on Genesis 28:20-21 reads, “If the Word of the Lord will be with me…then the Word of the LORD will be my God…”

The Targum on Genesis 1:27, “The Word of the Lord created man…”

The Targum on Exodus 20:1, “And the Word of the Lord spoke all these words…”

The Targum on Deuteronomy 1:30, “The Lord your God who leads before you, his Word will fight for you…

The Targum on Deuteronomy 4:7 places the Word on the throne of God, “The word of the Lord sits upon his throne high and lifted up and hears our prayer whenever we pray before him and make our petitions.” (Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol. 2. pp. 19-22)

Michael Brown also quotes Larry Hurtado’s summary of the first century Jewish philosopher, Philo:

Philo calls the Logos (word) ‘the second god’…and states that the ‘God’ in whose image Adam was created in Genesis 1:27 is actually the Logos, which the rational part of the soul resembles (Brown, p. 22)

Although we rightly make a distinction between the eternal personal Word and the written Word (Scripture), the connection is also clear. This is why true Christianity is a religion of the Book, one in which Jesus’ disciples have their noses in their Bibles.

  1. The idea that all things were made through the Word also exists in Judaism (John 1:2-4)

If all things are indeed created by the Word, then the Word must be uncreated.

Psalm 33:6 asserts, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Thus all things were created by Him (the Word).

…yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.… (1 Corinthians 8:6)

but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:2)

The Word is not only the agent of creation, creation exists for Him and He holds creation together. Colossians 1:16-17 states, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

The first entity the Father made through the agency of the Word was light (Gen. 1:3). In John 1:4-13, John presents the Word as repeating the process, this time bringing spiritual light. As John puts it in verse 4, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

By the way, not only is the Word God and with God, but so is the Spirit. Genesis 1:2 reads, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Here we have an uncreated entity (the Spirit) who exists during a time when only God existed, and yet He is presented as a distinct person.

The more I study the Bible, the more I see that most New Testament teaching finds its origin in the Hebrew Scriptures. And why should it not be so? The one God is the God of both Testaments. This Christmas, remember Who Jesus is: God in human flesh.