Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi. In His world that’s where He fits the best.
He traveled like a Rabbi,
taught like a Rabbi,
raised up disciples like a Rabbi,
and even used known Rabbinic teaching methods.
Now we’re going to take just a few minutes to look at some of His hard-to-understand statements and put them back into a Jewish context and see what we learn.
Matthew 8 Foxes, Birds, and Beds
One of my own personal questions came in Matthew 8, a man comes to Jesus and says “Teacher, (rabbi) I’ll follow you wherever you go.” Jesus’ response: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” What does that mean? Is that a yes follow me or a no don’t? I use to wonder and wonder what was Jesus saying here? I finally learned Jesus is simply acknowledging the hardships of being a Rabbi and a disciple. Jesus doesn’t have a home and He doesn’t have His own bed. He’s a Rabbi and that means traveling. In other words He’s saying “Sure, you can follow me, but realize what you’re getting in to. Count the cost and decide if I’m worth it or not.”
One known way Rabbis taught was to use exaggeration to make a point. When Jesus says in Matthew 5 “if your eye causes you to sin pluck it out and throw it away” no one listening thought Jesus honestly meant to take your eye out. He meant that it was very important to be careful with what you placed before your eyes because that can lead you down a path you didn’t want to go and you’d rather be blind then go down that path.
Another example of exaggeration comes in Luke 14. Luke 14:26 literally (NASB) states this “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”
Jesus wasn’t calling His disciples to detest their family or even their lives. God clearly states in the 10 commandments honor your father and mother. Families were extremely important to the Jewish people then and now. So what is Jesus talking about here? Again He’s using exaggeration and the idea of “loving less.” In the days of Jesus the idea of ‘hate’ could be used in different ways. Jesus isn’t saying “detest your family and treat them miserably” what He’s saying is “as important as your family is, God is to be more important. You need to love Me, more than you love your parents, so if I call you to leave them and go tell the world about Me, you need to go. And you need to love your own life less then you love My kingdom, so if I call you to die for the sake of My kingdom, you need to be willing to lay down your life for Me and My cause.” As Jesus says elsewhere – seek first the Kingdom of God then all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6)
Not only did Jesus use exaggeration, but He also used Hebrew idioms, cultural phrases that only make sense in that specific culture. An example of an english idiom would be “it’s raining cats and dogs.” I don’t need to explain that to you – you all know exactly what I mean but try translating that into another language, or saying that in another english speaking culture and people will think you’re nuts. “Tickled to death, shooting from the hip, on the tip of my tongue” are examples of other idioms. Every language and culture has its own idioms.
A Good Eye
An example of an idiom in Hebrew is from Proverbs 22:9 states “a generous man (or literally a ‘good eye’) will himself be blessed for he shares his food with the poor. Again Prov. 28:22 says “a man with an evil eye hastens after wealth.…” (NASB) Knowing the Scriptures as well as they did the Rabbis would use a “good eye” as a picture for a generous man. And someone who has an evil eye is stingy, only thinking of himself.
That might shed light on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6 where He states “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad (or evil) your whole body will be full of darkness…. No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The entire context of that paragraph is talking about finances and the love of money yet many people have no clue what Jesus means by a “good eye.” Throughout the centuries all kinds of random thoughts have been brought forward as to what Jesus meant. Anything from ‘Jesus was talking about the inner 3rd eye’, to ‘Jesus was actually talking about the eye and physical problems with it’. But if you look at Jesus’ culture and understand what it meant in Judaism this whole paragraph makes sense. In other words Jesus is stating “if you’re a generous person who loves God and others more than money, your life will be filled with light and God’s glory can shine through you. But if you love money more than anything your life will be filled with darkness and emptiness.”
These are just a few examples but there are many others in the Gospels. The teachings of Jesus, the life of Jesus, His parables just explode with meaning as you begin to learn about His culture.
Summing It Up
It can be hard to understand or identify with Jesus sometimes because He wasn’t brought up in an American home and the Bible wasn’t written from that perspective either. Yes, the Bible was written FOR you but it was not written TO you. We need to go back and understand better the men and women to whom the Bible was written. As much as we possibly can we need to enter their world and see things from their perspective. Once we put on their lenses all of a sudden a very clear picture of Jesus emerges. His words begin to make sense. His lifestyle fits with His mission. His passion and His teachings come to life. The black and white pages of the text start to fill with color.
Jesus was a 1st century Jewish Rabbi who was brought up in a culture that was grounded in the Word of God. Even some of their idioms come from the Bible. The OT was their lifeblood and they worked hard to pass that on to each new generation. What about us?
One practical application – how well are you grounded in the Word? Is your home a place that’s saturated in Scripture? Do you memorize it, meditate on it, discuss it with others? Are you reading it, getting a feel for its themes and meanings? The Bible is a literary work of art. It has a depth and beauty that surpasses any other book but like any good work of art it takes time to see it and appreciate it. Take time to get to know your Rabbi Jesus and get to know His Word. You will never regret it I promise you. He is a good God and He is faithful to reward all those who diligently seek Him.