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.

A Midrash Discovered by Jonathan Edwards: By Their Fruit

A Midrash Discovered by Jonathan Edwards: By Their Fruit

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

Background to Edwards’ Midrash Discovery

Not many in years gone by gave much weight to the Jewish background of New Testament teachings, but that is not to say that nobody did. John Lightfoot, for example, began a set way back in the 17th century titled, Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. Because there are so few works like this, Lightfoot’s is still in print. Unfortunately, Lightfoot was only able to complete his commentary through I Corinthians before the Lord called him home.

In the 19th century, John Gill completed his commentary on the Bible and often quotes the Talmud and other ancient Jewish literature. His set is available online for free (I downloaded the PDFs into my Kindle).

Although we do not usually think of Jonathan Edwards as a “Jewish Roots” aficionado, and although Edwards (to my knowledge) never spoke of the New Testament as including Midrash, he nonetheless does sometimes embrace the idea that Second Testament texts are derived from First Testament ones (beyond the obvious quotations).

 

As I was reading through his book, The Religious Affections, I was surprised to find an interesting Midrash I had never noticed before. The Midrash traces Jesus’ saying, “So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20).

We tend to think of fruit as sweet juicy produce that grows on trees or bushes. But the Greek word, karpos, includes the idea of heads of grain. For example, the Gospels use the word karpos in this way in Mark 4:29, where it is translated, “crop.”

“But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Before we make the connection Edwards made centuries ago, we need to be familiar with a somewhat obscure passage (to us), Judges 12:5-7,

The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened   when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead     would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Say now, ‘Shibboleth.’” But he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus there fell at that time 42,000 of Ephraim.

Because of dialect differences, the Ephraimites could not pronounce the sound of the letter shin (sh) properly (literally to save their lives), but they pronounced it as a samech (s). That is the point of this text.

But what does the word “Shibboleth” mean? It is used 16 times, and translated as “heads of grain” eight times and “grain” two times in the NIV.

 

Readers unfamiliar with older English need to understand that the term “corn” as used by Edward and the King James Version is not the maze we call corn, but an old term for “grain.” For example, the produce Americans call corn was unknown in the Old World until the time of Columbus. Thus when the KJV talks about disciples go through the “corn fields” (Mark 2:23, KJV), the term corn means grain.

The Discovery Itself

Edwards connects the Shibboleth incident in Judges to both the parable of the wheat and tares and the idea that one’s fruit (works) is the sign of inner conversion. Although allegorizing in ways consistent with Reformed interpretation, Edwards writes:

As it is the ear of the fruit which distinguishes the wheat from the tares, so this is the true Shibboleth, that he who stands as judge at the passages of Jordan, makes use of    to distinguish those that should be slain at the passages. For the Hebrew word Shibboleth signifies an ear of corn. And perhaps the more full pronunciation of  Jephthah’s friends, Shibboleth, may represent a full ear with fruit in it, typifying the    fruits of the friends of Christ…

[Source: The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Eremetical Press, Vancouver, 2009 edition, p.75. Originally printed in 1745]

Conclusion

Edwards did not use the term “Midrash” for his suggestions, nor does he embrace my self-appointed role as the “Midrash Detective.” Nonetheless, he makes the point, one that led me to this conclusion:

When Yeshua spoke to his disciples (probably speaking in Mishnaic Hebrew), perhaps he actually said, “By their shibboleth you will know them.” The Gospel authors, writing in Greek, would have naturally translated this as “fruit.”

The basic meaning of recognizing true disciples “by their fruit” is not altered if I am right or if I am wrong. But, if I am correct, we were intended to have this imagery in mind. Even in the time of the Judges, one group could be sorted from another by their shibboleth, their karpos, their fruit.

As the Master said in Matthew 13:52,

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Knowing others by their shibboleth is an old treasure!

Baptism With the Holy Spirit Midrash: Isaiah 4:2-6

Baptism With the Holy Spirit Midrash: Isaiah 4:2-6

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

 

As we read through the First Testament, we find the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:2 hovering like a dove over the waters. We read much about the Spirit, including an incident regarding King Saul who had a Pentecost-like experience in I Samuel 10:9-11 (ESV):

When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart. And all these signs came to pass that day. When they came to Gibeah, behold, a group of prophets met him, and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them. And when all who knew him previously saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, “What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?”

Indeed, the New Testament doctrine of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit and the supernatural manifestations at Pentecost has a strong Old Testament foundation. In Isaiah 4:2-6, we read:

In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.

In Luke 3:16, we read a likely Midrash:

John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’

The baptism prophesied by John was likely based upon First Testament passages like the Isaiah verses cited above; this is not to say that direct communication from God to John did not take place (John 1:33), but I am suggesting that John would have understood that communication as based upon passages like Isaiah 4:2-6. Devout Jews who preached and taught were so fluent in the Scriptures that the terminology associating the Holy Spirit with fire would have immediately been mentally indexed back to the Isaiah passage.

The prophecy in Isaiah seems most literally understood as referring to Israel as she enters the Millennium. Yet the concept is applied in a less literal sense and at a nearer time to the remnant of believers in Yeshua (Jesus) we call “the invisible church” (all truly saved people – in contrast to congregations in which some know the Lord and some do not).[i]

So what can we learn about the current baptism of the Spirit experienced by all true believers in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:9, I Corinthians 12:13)?

Note some the similarities between the experience of the church and the Isaiah passage.

First, the Messiah (Branch) comes and is received. This will be true of all the survivors of Israel at the end of the Great Tribulation when the Savior reveals Himself to the people of Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:1-14 and Romans 11:26). Yet it is currently realized in another sense for those who have received him (John 1:11-12). This includes a dual “remnant,” namely believing Jews (Romans 11:4-5) and believing “grafted in” gentiles who draw life from faithful Israel’s roots (Romans 11:13-21, John 4:22b).

Second, it is this remnant (so translated in the LXX) that is called “holy” and tends the land so it bears fruit; the New Testament frequently emphasizes the holiness of the believer and uses the “fruit” theme for the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer (Galatians 5:22). Although this Isaiah passage should be understood as referring to physical fruit, it need not be exclusively understood in this way. New Testament writers, I believe, expand upon the idea of fruit and carry it into the spiritual realm. A spiritual application in no way diminishes the literal, physical application. It is a case of both/and, not either/or. I cannot prove this, but am suggesting it.[ii]

Third, the Holy Spirit’s purifying flames cleanse this remnant within. This act is pictured as both a “washing away” and a purifying by flame. This is a bit perplexing, as we tend to distinguish between the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (which is seen in the Old Testament as “circumcision of the heart,” Deut. 30:6) and his “engulfing” also known as “baptism” (at least, that is my suggestion). This probably means that the Holy Spirit will regenerate the remnant (4) and then “baptize” the remnant (5). This allows that the Holy Spirit has always been known as a Spirit of “fire,” but that his baptism (not his fire) is the new manifestation evidenced originally on The Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The one already known as “The Spirit of Fire” would baptize all believers into one body (I Corinthians 12:13), thus fulfilling Jesus’ prayer that all believers would be one (John 17:21) by the Spirit he had promised (John 16:7-15).

Fourth, the cloud of smoke (easily associated with God’s Shekinah, although that particular later word is not used in the Old Testament itself) and pillar of flame represent God’s special presence, protection, and power (Exodus 13:21-22). In addition to these, the Spirit’s “baptism” (we import the New Testament term because we are postulating that the idea of Spirit baptism derives itself from Isaiah 4), we note the “canopy.” For now, suffice it to say that this imagery speaks of being completely ENGULFED, and by extension, we might say completed IMMERSED (baptized) by the Holy Spirit.[iii] Thus, the New Testament believer, in a spiritual sense, is now living out the fulfillment of Isaiah 4 even as we await a future, more literal fulfillment of this passage when the Messiah returns to reign.

Fifth, the imagery of fire is seen once again in Acts 2 where “tongues of fire” set themselves above each one being Spirit-baptized. The Spirit of God not only purifies us with regeneration (as he always has), but also engulfs and empowers us so that we are led, like the children of Israel in the wilderness, by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.

Sixth, we might even suggest a special presence of the Spirit (Matthew 18:20 extends the concept to the Son) upon our assemblies, an Old Testament term that corresponds well to the New Testament concept of individual congregations (Revelation 2:1-3:21).

Conclusion

As mentioned in the introduction, we are addressing only selected highlights of Isaiah 4:4-6. I am convinced that much New Testament teaching is based upon an expansion of this text in the Jewish tradition of Midrash. I hope this brief article stimulates your mind and heart to ponder the real meaning of Spirit baptism based upon this foundation.

[i] Since I subscribe to “Progressive Dispensationalism,” my interpretive framework advocates the frequency of double fulfillment. This means that we can often find a near, less literal fulfillment in the church age and more literal distant fulfillment in the Millennial Kingdom. Just as the literal furnishings of the Temple have spiritual implications for the believer but were still literal furnishing (Hebrews 10:1), so prophecy that is first fulfilled spiritually does not negate its more literal future realization. We might picture the Law and Prophecy as on both ends of a line while their spiritual aspects are centered during the church age. Alternatively, we can think of a mirror image.

[ii] As the “Midrash Detective,” I admit to using a deductive approach; I begin with a hypothesis and then see if it seems to fit. This is an imperfect science, and I do not hide that some of my suggestions may miss the mark. The reader must decide.

[iii] In I Corinthians 10:1-4, Paul the Apostle uses a similar way of thinking to refer to baptism. Whether he has Spirit or water baptism in mind is a matter of debate, but, because he foresees a foreshadowing of communion in the same passages, most lean toward interpreting Paul as referring to water baptism. Remember, the children of Israel never got wet during the Exodus. Still, the idea of being surrounded and being immersed (baptized) seems to be correlated. The text reads, “For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”

The 144,000 Jews: Why No Mention of Dan in Revelation 7?

Why No Mention of Dan in Revelation 7?
by Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

The list of the Twelve Tribes of Israel in Revelation 7 omits the tribe of Dan and the half tribe of Ephraim but includes the “tribe of Joseph” and the half tribe of Manasseh. What are the implications of this variation of the tribal listings?

Two Distinct People Groups 

I am convinced that tedious listings serve an obvious meaning: to clarify that a passage is to be taken literally (and thus within the category of genealogies and numberings found in the Torah and elsewhere). As another case in point, Ezekiel’s Temple measurements are horrendously detailed; therefore, the most reasonable interpretation is that the Temple will actually be rebuilt during the Kingdom Age. Who else would want to tackle the meaning of the text if it were not literal? Who would have time or energy to decode it if it were allegorical? Tedious detail precludes the “easy out” of allegorical or spiritual interpretation.

The context also evidences the concept that the 144,000 Israelites are to be taken in literal fashion. In our text, (7:1-9) we see TWO people groups: 144,000 tediously defined as Israelites and an uncountable multituderepresenting all of the redeemed (vs. 9); these groups are distinct, though the former are a subset of the latter massive group. So we have a modest number of Israelites who are sealed and a second, immense group of the redeemed. To make them the same is to make the logical error of the undistributed middle. (All women are people therefore all people are women.)

Ephraim Included Under the Banner of Joseph

But why is “Joseph” added? In a sense, the tribe of Joseph was only a tribe in theory. As you might recall, Joseph’s two sons were given separate tribal status because Joseph was specially honored with a double portion. Even though he was not born first (chronologically), he was, by Jacob’s decree, given the rights of the firstborn socially (hence receiving the double portion given to the firstborn son). Jacob himself had been in a similar position: even though his twin Esau was born first, Jacob received the honors of the firstborn.

So we can assume that one of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim, who is also Jacob’s grandson, is included under the tribe of “Joseph,” while Joseph’s other son, Manasseh, is listed separately as his own tribe. This idea is treated similarly in Ezekiel 48. Early in the chapter, we have the “typical” list of the 12 Tribes (excluding Levi, whose land is not distributed in a block fashion, but including Dan and Ephraim). But in Ezekiel 48:30-34, where we have the four city exits, we see that Ephraim is omitted while Joseph is included:

These will be the exits of the city: Beginning on the north side, which is 4,500 cubits long, the gates of the city will be named after the tribes of Israel. The three gates on the north side will be the gate of Reuben, the gate of Judah and the gate of Levi.

On the east side, which is 4,500 cubits long, will be three gates: the gate of Joseph, the gate of Benjamin and the gate of Dan.

On the south side, which measures 4,500 cubits, will be three gates: the gate of Simeon, the gate of Issachar and the gate of Zebulun.

On the west side, which is 4,500 cubits long, will be three gates: the gate of Gad, the gate of Asher and the gate of Naphtali.

In this text, we can postulate that the Tribe of Ephraim, being the dominant tribe of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, is included under the banner of the “Tribe of Joseph.” But it is my opinion that the term “Joseph” is used to include MORE than merely Ephraim. I will elaborate on this further below.

Why was Dan omitted?

The Fluidity of the Tribes in the Old Testament

In the above passage (Ezekiel 48), we observe two distinct tribal listings in the same chapter. Do we see any other tribal variations in the Old Testament? Yes!

In Deuteronomy 33, the tribe of Simeon is left out of Moses’ blessing. If we can discover why Simeon was left out there, then that could provide us with the clue to Revelation 7.

A reasonable answer for Simeon’s omission is that the land of Simeon was an island surrounded by the territory of Judah. Note this point: few conservatives challenge that the tribes Moses mentions in Deuteronomy 33 are literal (simply because one is left out). Between the passage mentioned above in Ezekiel and the list of Deuteronomy 33it is reasonable to conclude that the Jews viewed the 12 Tribes as a fluid expression of their national composition. Whereas the 12 sons of Jacob are absolute and unchanging in nature, the 12 tribes have been fluid since the beginning (when Jacob, by blessing Joseph’s two sons, created 13 tribes).

Perhaps I am cynical, but it seems to me that the reason some theologians point to the omission of Dan in Revelation is because they have an agenda to allegorize the tribes. Since there is no such agenda for Deuteronomy 33, some of the same scholars who defend the literal integrity of Deuteronomy advocate allegorizing Revelation 7.

More Clues

Also worth noting in our quest is the fact that the tribe of Benjamin is frequently included with Judah throughout the Old Testament. These clues advance our “fluidity” theory.

1 Kings 11:29-32 reads:

About that time Jeroboam was going out of Jerusalem, and Ahijah the prophet of Shiloh met him on the way, wearing a new cloak. The two of them were alone out in the country, and Ahijah took hold of the new cloak he was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces. Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes. But for the sake of my servant David and the city of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, he will have one tribe.”

Note here that the ten strips plus the one strip of fabric equals only eleven strips. Yet we know that the “one strip” really represented two tribes, Judah and Benjamin.

Conventional interpretation suggests that Benjamin was so small at this time that it was not considered its own tribe. If so, we need to add Levi to get 12 tribes, and, of course, Levi’s land allotments were scattered through all Israel. Although many faithful Jews later migrated to Judah from the Northern Kingdom, Levi, at least initially, probably kept its land scattered within both the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah).

If Benjamin were included, we would have what we normally picture: 13 tribes (11 full tribes and two “half” tribes). If Benjamin indeed is not counted here as its own tribe, why is it unthinkable that Dan should suffer the same fate in Revelation?

In light of all this evidence, it seems logical to conclude the following: The Twelve Tribes of Israel were not as firmly set as many believe. The enumeration of the twelve tribes is a floating enumeration.

New Testament Counterpart

We see something related in Paul’s account of a post-resurrection appearance of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:5we read that Jesus, “appeared to the Twelve.” The problem is that twelve apostles were not present. In His first appearance, He only appeared to ten. Even when Thomas was present a week later, He technically appeared to eleven apostles. (Judas Iscariot was dead). In that case, the term, “The Twelve” is not so much a numerical term as a figure for the apostolic group. The same seems to be true with the twelve tribes of Israel. In this case, we must ask, “which twelve?”

Bad Vibrations

The Targum on Pseudo-Jonathan adds an interesting insight as to the views held by later Jews (perhaps in the eighth century) about the tribe of Dan. This Targum (a paraphrase, interpretation, and expansion of the Torah into Aramaic), in Exodus 17:8, reads:

And Amalek came from the land of the south and leaped on that night a thousand and six hundred miles; and on account of the disagreement which had been between Esau and Jakob, he came and waged war with Israel in Rephidim, and took and killed (some of the) men of the house of Dan; for the cloud did not embrace them, because of the strange worship that was among them.

Contrasting this to the original text, Exodus 17:8, which simply reads: “The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim” gives the reader an impression that the author of the Targum is venting by means of a diatribe against Dan!

For some reason unknown to me, the Jewish people had a negative attitude toward the tribe of Dan, at least at one point in time. I am not saying that this negative attitude was prevalent as far back as the Second Temple period, but it may have been. This may or may not have bearing on the Revelation passage.

The Best Solution: The “Tribe of Joseph” is a Regional, Not Primarily Genetic, Term!

I will eventually bring us back to this point, namely that “Joseph” is a regional term (and provides room for expansion), but I want to “get us there” first.

The Genetic Confusion Between Tribes

Returning to Revelation 7, one solution seems likely to me: both Ephraim and Dan, and perhaps others, are included in the title, “tribe of Joseph.” Although Ephraim and Manasseh were brothers and could therefore logically be called “the tribe of Joseph,” remember that there really was no such Old Testament tribe as “Joseph,” at least not in a practical sense. Instead, Joseph’s line was represented by the phrase “the half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.”

We need to take into account that though many of the northern tribes were “lost” after the Assyrian Conquest (722 B.C.), the godly of the land had previously fled south to Judah (2 Chronicles 15:934:9). But that does not mean all tribal heritages were lost.

In New Testament times, for example, we are introduced to Anna, who was of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36, 38). In addition to the tribes of Levi, Judah and Benjamin (of which Paul was a member), most or all of the other tribes were probably represented within the Jewish community, although probably in small numbers.

Possibility One: Dan and Ephraim Mixed Into the Tribe of Joseph

So here is one possible scenario: After the conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., the godly Israelites from the tribes of Ephraim basically absorbed the remnant from the tribe of Dan, and the people of Dan lost their separate identity perhaps because so few of them were faithful to the Lord and hence not mentioned in the migration of 2 Chronicles 15:9. This combination of Dan, who descended from Rachael’s handmaid, Bilhah, and Joseph who descended from Rachael, are so intertwined that they became known simply as the “Tribe of Joseph” because they really were such a mixture that perhaps their genealogies could no longer be sorted out, as could be done with the other tribes. Since Ephraim bordered the smaller region given to Dan, the groups absorbed each another. It could be that this conglomeration could have happened even before 722 B.C.; if so, the Ephraimites of 2 Chronicles 15:9 might be an Ephraim-Dan mix.

Since Ephraim and Dan had lost track of their genealogies by the first century A.D., they could not confidently call themselves Ephraimites or Danites, so they chose a term to explain this genetic uncertainty, the tribe of Joseph. This would also make it clear that their Ephraimitic line was the dominant strain and that they were all connected somewhere to Joseph but were not clearly legal heirs to the title “tribe of Ephraim.”

Possibility Two: Dan “Reduced”

Another possibility is that all those from the tribe of Dan are reduced in number in comparison to the other tribes. This might mean that there are still many descendents of Dan, but not enough to muster 12,000 virgin men (implied by Revelation 14:4) during the Tribulation period.

If the invasion of 2 Chronicles 16:4 depleted Dan, then the invasion of the Assyrians (2 Kings 15:29) may have depleted them further to the point that they virtually disappeared. If so, the term “Joseph” may refer to miscellaneous, minority or uncategorized Israelites.

Possibility Three: Joseph Used of A Region, Not A Specific Genetic Heritage

In Zechariah 10:6, we read: “I will strengthen the house of Judah and save the house of Joseph. I will restore them because I have compassion on them. They will be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the LORDtheir God and I will answer them.”

In these and other verses, the entire block of northern tribes is sometimes called “Joseph.” So perhaps the tribe of Joseph refers to descendents of Israel who are so mixed that they cannot be categorized into any other tribe, with the tribe of Dan being completely mixed and beyond sorting.

Possibility Four: The Samaritans and Gentile Converts

Yet another intriguing possibility that provides an even simpler solution is this: the tribe of Joseph refers to the Samaritans! When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom, (aka, “Samaria,” “Ephraim,” or “Joseph,”) they left some of the peoples behind while deporting the majority and dispersing them throughout their kingdom. Perhaps the majority of those left behind were from Dan and Ephraim. The Assyrians then imported a variety of gentile peoples into the land, and these people intermarried, creating the Samaritan race, a race the Jews despised. These were the troublemakers mentioned in Nehemiah: the early Samaritans.

Modern Jews (who have often done some intermarrying themselves) recognize the Samaritans–who have never left the land and still sacrifice Passover lambs on Mt. Gerizim–as fully Jewish! The Samaritan Jews today are more observant than modern Orthodox Jews. So perhaps the Samaritans are considered the tribe of Joseph because the term Joseph is used for the Northern Kingdom.

While we are at it, we might even suggest that the term Joseph includes gentiles who have converted to Judaism. We know, for example, that when the Hebrews left Egypt, some gentile peoples (called a “mixed multitude” in Exodus 12:38) were amalgamated into the nation.

Another obscure passage from Ezekiel 47:21-23 helps to “bust the case wide open”:

You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD.

This passage alone shows us a case of divine precedent: tribal identity is not merely genetic. Thus, the concept of “The Tribe of Joseph” leaves room for all kinds of converts to Judaism, mixed Jews, and Samaritans.

How Hard to Find 144,000 Jews?

Although there may not be enough virgin men to supply the 12,000 required for the Tribe of Dan, the world is filled with people who have genetic connections to Israel. Perhaps most people of European, Middle-Eastern, or North African descent are genetically connected to Israel somewhere–very likely to the many children of Solomon who married royalty throughout the region (and then the grandchildren who likewise married royalty moving the genetic connection in all directions, including westward). Since the progeny of royal families tended to be large and healthy, many of us have a touch of royal blood somewhere, and thus probably a Jewish connection.

Note that God not only promises to make a great nation from Jacob in Genesis 35:11, but also suggests that Jacob will father God’s special nation, Israel, but also that a “community of nations” will arise from Jacob.

The text reads, “And God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty ; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body.'”

This could refer to the each of the tribes as a “nation,” and thus Israel is a “community of nations,” or it could refer to the idea that Jacob’s genes would be spread throughout the world, which has very likely happened (as mentioned above, many of Solomon’s thousands of children would have married foreign royalty, thus moving Jacob’s genes in all geographical directions; the rulers of the Northern Kingdom of Israel would also marry off their children born to concubines and lesser wives to foreign royalty, thus propagating Israelites from non-Judean stock as well).

“Even without a documented connection to a notable forebear, experts say the odds are virtually 100 percent that every person on Earth is descended from one royal personage or another.” (Quoted from Genealogist: Almost Everyone on Earth Descended From Royalty, an Associated Press article dated July 5, 2006.)

Although I disagree with the various theories of “British Israelism,” the actual truth is that many people in the world have some genetic link to not only Abraham–but also to Jacob.

Although modern Jews determine whether one is born a Jew or not by whether one’s mother was a Jewess, the ancient Biblical criteria seems oriented toward the heritage of the father. What criteria God will use to determine who belongs and does not belong to Israel are unrevealed.

Fidelity to Jacob Theology

Fidelity to Jacob Theology

By  Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

When it comes to interpreting Scripture, there are a number of common paradigms. Dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, olive tree theology, covenant theology, New Covenant theology, replacement theology, and supersessionism are among them.

Some of us fall in between the cracks. For example, I am somewhere between the cracks of traditional dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, and olive tree theology (developed by Messianic Jew David Stern).

I am suggesting we need a new, broader term to help make the major division between these viewpoints clear. So I am proposing that those of us who believe that God will fulfill the promises he made to ethnic Israel embrace the clear-cut label, “Fidelity to Jacob Theology.” This grouping should include many traditional and progressive dispensationalists and those who embrace olive tree theology.

This dividing line is a very important one and greatly affects how we interpret Scripture. The points of this broad hermeneutic are:

The promises God made to Israel (Jacob) will stand. Since replacement theologians and others sometimes refer to the church as “spiritual Israel” or “the new Israel,” I have chosen the term “Jacob” to emphasize the national and ethnic nature of these promises. God will faithfully keep the promises to the people with whom he made the promises with the terms understood as they would have been understood at the time. There is no slight of hand, no change of definition, no alterations or added conditions, but complete transparency and integrity on the part of God.

  1. The church is viewed within the context of God’s dealings with Israel. God has been dealing with Israel since the time of Jacob and preparing the way for Israel since the time of Abraham. God has always had his remnant of believers, even within the nation of Israel. God has also had non-Jewish believers in him. In the church — which was yet future as of Matthew 16:18 — Jewish and non-Jewish believers have equal status and privileges before God, but Jews are still Jews and gentiles are still gentiles, even though believing gentiles receive the spiritual benefits of being part of the commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:12). Messianic Jewish believers –who are not “Judaizers”– are “The Israel of God” indeed (Galatians 6:16).
  1. In Old Testament times, it was a remnant of Jews whose hearts were circumcised and thus right with God (Deuteronomy 30:6). God has always had a people right with him (the elect) and people who populated his nation, many of whom were not elect. This same pattern holds true today. In Pre-Pentecost times, some (at times many) gentiles turned from their sins and trusted the God of Israel. Some became full Jewish converts, many others partial converts and thus not equally privileged.

With the initiation of Jesus’ church, the New Covenant was initiated. Under the New Covenant, believing Jews and believing Gentiles are to be collected together as one new man. Whereas unbelieving Israel still has national purposes in the plan of God, they should not be confused with the elect. This has always been true; it is not a New Testament phenomenon.

What is distinct, however, is the equal status before God of believing Jews and believing gentiles. This status is equality before God, not “sameness” in other regards. Just as there is neither male nor female in our relationship to God (Galatians 3:28), there is a distinction within the church and family (I Timothy 2:9-15).

  1. God will restore the Kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6) in his time. Right now, Jewish believers and gentile believers are integrated into one body, the current form of the Kingdom. At the end of the Tribulation period, all Israel will come to believe (Zech. 14) and all will enter the New Covenant.
  1. During that 1,000 year Millennial Kingdom, Ezekiel’s temple will be rebuilt, Christ will reign from Jerusalem, and the Jewish people will be exalted (cf. Zechariah 12-14).

Whether we divide spiritual history into dispensations or label eras as covenants, whether we agree as to when the rapture occurs in relationship to the tribulation, or whether we embrace the idea that a mystery means something not mentioned at all in the Old Testament or mentioned but not clearly — these are not nearly as important when it comes to interpreting Scripture. What is important from interpretational and theological perspectives is that we recognize that God is no swindler nor double-talker. He will keep his fidelity to Jacob.

[from Pastor Ed’s personal Jewish Roots site, www.midrashkey.com; check out this site for more of his Jewish Roots articles, a few have also doubled as Body Builder articles, but most are unique]