So, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi. What does that even mean?

It means Jesus was seen as a teacher and was actually something of a celebrity. Ok, at times a HUGE celebrity.

The Jewish culture in the 1st century (and still very much today) centered around the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis – Malachi). They memorized it, studied it, wrestled with it, debated it and discussed what it meant and how to apply it to their lives. The celebrities of their day were the teachers of the Law, Rabbis, and even Pharisees. Rabbis were men (and a few women) who traveled around teaching about the Bible. It was a common sight to see a Rabbi sitting with their disciples and other listeners, expounding on some point in the Bible. A lively discussion was likely to follow as the listeners questioned, wrestled with, and debated the text. Learning was not for silent listening but for interactive discussions and debates.

As far as teachers go, Jesus was the ultimate. He was an all-star in the world of teaching Scriptures, spinning parables, and engaging in debates and discussions. In fact, the more I have dived into the culture of Jesus’ day and began to unpack the discussions Jesus was a part of, the more amazed I am at His brilliance and teaching.

The Example
Matthew 22:15-20 records a fascinating discussion between Jesus and some Pharisees and Herodians.

Background – the Pharisees were actually heroes to the Jewish people. They were seen as incredibly pious, faithful, and albeit at times hypocritical, people. The fact that Jesus interacts with them as much as He does, the fact that Jesus upholds much of their teaching, and the fact that Jesus actually seems to meet the Pharisee’s standards show how close His teaching and lifestyle was to their’s. Was Jesus a hypocrite? No. But neither was every Pharisee. Many of the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees were honest discussions and debates, trying to better understand the text. There were those who were envious of Jesus and tried to trap Him, but calling all Pharisees bad would be like calling all Baptists bad or all non-denominationals dirty or all reformers rude. Some yes, but definitely not all.

Now, back to the story. The group of Pharisees shown here are extremely envious of this upstart from Galilee. The fear of a revolt (and therefore punishment from Rome) was very real and Jesus seems to be getting ready to light a fire under the nation. The crowds have been calling Him Messiah, asking Him to “save them” and were becoming almost mob-like in their desire to touch and be close to Him. Another Messianic-figure leading the nation towards war was not what this little nation needed!

Then you had the Herodians who were on the completely other side of the spectrum from the Pharisees. They were friends of Rome and usually enemies of the Pharisees. This was quite the group to come and talk to Jesus. What were they doing together?!

The Trap
Then they set it, the perfect trap. There’s no way Jesus can get out of this one: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Ouch! First off, who really likes to pay taxes? If Jesus answers ‘yes’ He’s instantly lost some of His status with the crowd. At that time taxes were incredibly high and seen as extremely humiliating because they were a constant reminder of Roman control. Also, the only coins able to be used for taxes were Rome-minted, which had Caesar’s likeness and sometimes deity-like inscription on them. (Graven image anyone?)

So, if Jesus says ‘yes, it is lawful to pay taxes’ He’s lost the respect of the crowd and is less likely to lead a revolt.

But if Jesus says ‘no’ that creates another issue – His potential death. Insurrection against Rome was never treated mercifully. If Jesus said, “taxes are unlawful” the Temple guards standing around would quickly grab Jesus, put Him in jail and potentially crucify Him as a rebel.

What’s Jesus to do? He can’t say ‘yes’ and He can’t say ‘no’.

The Answer
I told you Jesus was brilliant. He acknowledges the trap and even calls them out on it: “I know exactly what you’re trying to do to Me” is essentially what He says. But then He goes on and says, “Show Me a coin. Who’s image is on it?”

“Caesars!” (Obviously).

His response: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”.

The brilliance of His whole response turns on one word that we all too often miss – “image.” Where is the first time we see that word used in Scripture? Genesis 1:26. God said, “Let Us make man in Our image.” That verse would have immediately come to the mind of the listeners. The question Jesus asked without asking (typical Rabbinical teaching style) was, “who’s Image is on you?”.

Caesar’s image is on the coin, fine, give the coin back to him. That’s not what’s important here. The important thing is who’s image do you carry? And are you giving that image back to God? Are you living in such a way that your life belongs to God, because it’s His image you bear.

Not only does Jesus perfectly answer the question, He turns it back on them and focuses on what’s important. Taxes are (unfortunately) a part of life on this planet. Give the government what is due to them. BUT, more importantly make sure you are giving to God what is due to Him – your life. Money comes and money goes but how are you living your life? That’s what you will carry with you in the age to come. That’s what you’ll leave behind for your children and grandchildren and no one can take that away.

Jesus was an exceptional Teacher but all too often we miss the subtlety and beauty of His arguments because we simply aren’t aware of the cultural undercurrents and background to the debates.

Why does Jesus get asked several times about divorce?
What does it mean if your eye is good or bad? (Matthew 6)
What did the word “Messiah” mean in Jesus’ day?
Did Jesus believe Himself to be the “Son of God” – He never says it? (answer yes but it’s done very Jewish-ly)
Why was it a big deal that Jesus called God “My Father”?
Why does Jesus talk about taking on His yoke and what does that mean? (Matthew 11)
Why does Jesus call it “the kingdom of heaven” sometimes and at other times “the kingdom of God”? What is this Kingdom and who is it’s King?

Down below I have links for two different websites and 2 different starter books, just in case I’ve wet your appetite and your curious to learn more about the Jewishness of Jesus.

Our Rabbi Jesus
Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus
New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus