Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message on Snapshots of Jesus 01; Date: 4 October 09

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Jesus The Jew


In 1973 a book was published with the title “Jesus The Jew” which – at that time – was shocking news to most Western Christians. The author of the book – Geza Vermes – a Jewish scholar – was reprimanded (by the chaplaincy at an English University) for suggesting that Jesus was a Jew. Yes – Moses (the one that led the people of Israel out of Egypt) had been a Hebrew but Jesus was a Christian. A Bible lecturer (Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza) had an old Catholic gentleman in her class who – after some dogged resistance – was finally persuaded that Jesus was indeed Jewish. “Buthe added at once, “the Blessed Mother [the Virgin Mary – the Mother of Jesus] for sure was notThis gentleman simply reflected his upbringing – my upbringing – and maybe yours. In the Western world – all the icons – all the pictures in all the churches and cathedrals – all the old Hollywood movies before 1973 – they all show Mary as a white woman with a white baby Jesus, who was the Son of God – conceived by the Holy Spirit – and not a Jew.

When the 1993 edition of the “New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” included a new definition for “Jesus”, saying that he was “the central figure of the Christian faith, a Jewish preacher (c. 5 BC – c. AD 30) regarded by his followers as the Son of God and God incarnate”, there was an outcry among some traditional Christians. On the frontpage of “The Times” (1993) the English public could read that a senior evangelical and a member of the General Church Synod (of the Church of England) found “the idea of Jesus as a ‘Jewish preacher’ to be a rather derogatory term (a putdown)”.[1] Later this pastor tried to make amends by stating that “the ‘Dictionary’ helpfully records for the first time that Jesus is Jewish”.

This was in 1993. Why did it take that long for the “Dictionary” to state for the first time that Jesus was Jewish? Why was – and maybe still is – the idea of a Jewish Jesus so troublesome? The harsh truth was – and is – that Christians – for centuries – had hated the Jews with violent persecutions and killings. I still remember a story which I heard a school. Around the time of World War II – at the entrance of a small German village – there was a sign that said “No Jews Allowed” and right next to the sign was the proud display of a cross with Jesus on it (a crucifix) because the small village was Christian. No one in the village picked up on the irony. If you say that no Jews are allowed in your community, then Jesus is also not welcome because he was a Jew.

At this point we cannot trace the history of Christian anti-semitism (animosity toward Jews) but simply consider a few instances of murderous hatred. In the year 1096 the first Crusade began and in this time – approximately – a quarter to one third of the entire Jewish population in Germany and northern France was murdered. In Jerusalem the Jews fled from the Crusaders, locking themselves in the main synagogue, where all nine hundred and sixty-nine people were burnt to death. The Crusaders believed that they were avenging the death of Christ and therefore – outside – they sang “Christ, We Adore Thee” – holding high their Crusader crosses.

Jews were blamed for every calamity – from hurricanes and earthquakes to the Black Death – with the consequence that thousands upon thousands were killed all over Christian Europe. Then, Jews were expelled from nearly every country in which they resided. In 1290 they were expelled from England – in 1492 from Spain – and there were repeated expulsions from France and Germany.

The hatred from Christians was relentless and even men (and women) of God – like Martin Luther – behaved in ways which make us – deeply – ashamed today. For instance, in 1542 he wrote the tract “Concerning The Jews And Their Lies”. Listen to a few quotes: “ … Much less do I propose to convert the Jews, for that is impossible … The sun has never shone on a more bloodthirsty and vengeful people than they are … Their breath stinks with lust for the Gentiles' gold and silver; for no nation under the sun is greedier than they were, still are, and always will be … they are nothing but thieves and robbers … they are a heavy burden, a plague, a pestilence, a sheer misfortune for our country … So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to finally overcoming us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property (as they daily pray and hope) …

What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? … we must practice a sharp mercy … I shall give you my sincere advice: First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn … This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians … Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed … Third, I advise that all their prayer books … be taken from them. Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach … Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews … Sixth, I advise that … all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … Seventh, I recommend … letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow … In my opinion the problem must be resolved thus: … They must be driven from our country … deal severely with their lying mouth … I wish and I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy toward these wretched people, as suggested above, … They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Such a procedure must also be followed in this instance. Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest the whole people perish … it would be wrong to be merciful … If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs, so that we do not become partakers of their abominable blasphemy and all their other vices … I have done my duty. Now let everyone see to his. I am exonerated

Luther continued in this anti-Jewish vein right until his death in 1546.[2] The authorities were to set fire to their synagogues and schools, raze their houses, silence their teachers, remove police protection, confiscate their property and condemn them to hard labour. In due course Christian Germany would be involved in killing six million Jews during the Nazi era and it is probably not an accident that – in November 1938 – the night the synagogues were burnt down in Germany (Kristallnacht) was the anniversary of Martin Luther’s birthday. This part of our inheritance is not the best part – we are ashamed of it – but its roots go deep and – if only in subtle ways – may still predispose us against embracing Jesus as a Jew.

The verdict is that had it not been for the abject passiveness of almost the entire world community, Hitler – and this happened only a few years ago – could not have gone ahead with his mass extermination of the Jews. At a conference in France (Evian-les-Bains) – specifically convened by President Roosevelt in July 1938 to discuss the fate of European Jews – only three of over thirty nations (Denmark, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands) volunteered to take in a few thousand Jews. Nazi informers reported back to Hitler: “You can do what you like with the Jews. Nobody wants them

No wonder that the Christian world was in shock when a book declared in 1973 that their very own Saviour himself was a Jew. However, there are a few reasons why we need to become accustomed to this. 1) Unless you understand the Jewishness of Jesus, you will not understand him at all. 2) Unless you understand Jewish history, you will not understand your own. 3) Unless you worship the God who chose the Jews first, you will not worship God at all. I make the same three points again – this time in more positive terms: 1) As you learn about Jesus the Jew, you learn to understand him and what he means to you. 2) As you learn about Jewish history, you learn about your own. 3) As you learn about the God of history, you learn to worship the one true God.

Maybe – at this stage – these points are not that clear yet but we will expand on them. 1) Unless you understand the Jewishness of Jesus, you will not understand him at all. It is as you learn about Jesus the Jew, that you learn to understand him and what he means to you.

The Bible book of Matthew – in verse one of the first chapter – introduces Jesus in absolutely Jewish terms – I read: “The family tree of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of AbrahamThese few words are loaded with Jewish expectations and explanations of Jesus. The name “Jesus” was a common Jewish name – “Yeshua” (“he [God] saves”, Matthew 1:21). The title “Christ” – Greek for the Jewish word “Messiah” (which means “Anointed One”) – became so much identified with Jesus that it came to function as his second name. The Jews had been expecting a Messiah for centuries – one that was anointed with the Holy Spirit (signified by the anointing with oil) – who would deliver them from oppression – and Jesus was that Messiah.

At one time Jesus queried his disciples about what other people thought of him. They answered that most thought that he was some kind of prophet. Then Jesus asked them – Matthew 16:15: “ … Who do you say I amPeter answered – Matthew 16:16: “ … You are the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of the living GodThis was it. Jesus replied – Matthew 16:17: “ … Blessed are you … for this was not revealed to you by any human, but by my Father in heavenJesus was the Christ – the focal point of all Jewish hope – according to God’s own revelation.

Further, the phrase “Son of the living God” was an expansion on the Christ theme. God himself had declared at the baptism of Jesus (when the Spirit of God descended on him – anointed him) – Matthew 3:17: “ . a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love … ’” and – according to God’s book – Psalm 2 – the Christ and the Son of God were one and the same person. I read – verses 2-7: “ … the Lord and . his Anointed One [the Christ] … the Lord . said [to him] … ‘You are my Son … ’”

Then the Christ – the Messiah – also had to be the royal descendant of King David – the most important Jewish king of the past – which cemented his Jewishness even more. The people were right asserting – John 7:42: “Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived” (cf. 1 Samuel 7)? Can we see now how the introduction of Jesus in Matthew 1:1 is loaded with meaning from a Jewish background: “The family tree of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”?

The last reference to Abraham is also important. God had promised Abraham – Genesis 12:2-3: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you … ” and also Genesis 17:3-8: “ … As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations … I will establish my covenant as and everlasting convenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come … I will be their GodIn this way Abraham became the father of all Jews – including Jesus, who was sent to fulill all that was promised to Abraham – Luke 1:69-75 – I read from the Bible: “He [God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David [the Messiah] (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies … to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us … and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness … ” Acts 13:32-33: “[cf. Brothers and sisters, children of Abraham, … (verse 26)] We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus … ”

We pause for a moment. Do you agree? Jesus cannot be explained – we cannot understand him – apart from his Jewish background – his ancestors Abraham and David and the Jewish hopes for a Messiah. In fact, all of Jewish history – as recorded in the Jewish Bible (all Bible books were written by Jews) – point to him which means that we likewise – today – need to understand his background in order to understand him. This was important to Jesus himself – Luke 24:44-49: “He said to his disciples [after he rose from the dead], ‘This is what I told you … Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Bible [original: in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms].’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise again from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name’ … ” So also Acts 18:28: “ … [Apollos was] proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ

So much of the Scriptures – so many prophecies and events – foreshadow him. Catch a few more glimpses of this fact. Jesus was understood to be the new Moses according to the prophecy which Moses himself gave to Israel – Deuteronomy 18:15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people. You must listen to him” (cf. Acts 3:22). Therefore – in the Bible – at one time – Jesus’ saving work on the cross and his resurrection were called “exodus” (Luke 9:31) – the same word which was used for the exodus of Israel from Egypt under Moses – and God – at the same time – confirmed the command of the prophecy – Luke 9:35: “ … listen to himAnother glimpse of Jesus the Jew is found in the references to him as high priest – for instance, Hebrews 9:11: “When Christ came as high priest … ” Hebrews 10:11-12: “Day after day every [Jewish] priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God

Jesus was a Jew and therefore the language of salvation in the Bible is Jewish to the core. Consider one last example – 1 Corinthians 5:7 – I read: “ … Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed[So also 1 Peter 1:19: “ … [redeemed] . with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”] What is a Passover lamb? How can anyone understand this sentence without understanding its Jewish background? At one of the key junctures of Jewish history God told his people to slaughter a lamb and smear the blood of the lamb on their door frames. It was to protect them from God’s last plague against Egypt. God had told them – Exodus 12:12-14: “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn – both men and animals – and I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord – a lasting ordinance

Now Jesus became our Passover lamb whose blood was shed on the cross so that when we apply his blood to ourselves (by faith), God would see it and pass over us – not striking us down with judgement. [Expand and make this personal.]

[Cf. People around him called Jesus a Jewish rabbi (Mark 9:5-6; John 1:48-50; 4:31-35) and Jesus’ native tongue was Aramaic (Mark 14:36;15:34). John 3:14-15: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” 1 Corinthians 10:1-5: “ … they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea … they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ … ”]

I sum up this point again: 1) If we want to be saved, we need to allow Jesus the Jew to save us because we cannot understand him apart from his Jewish roots and background. And – this is the next point – 2) we cannot understand ourselves apart from considering the Jewishness of Jesus. In a conversation Jesus himself said – John 4:21-24: “ … You [those that are not Jews] worship what you do not know; we [the Jews] worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks … ” Jesus confirmed that salvation was from the Jews because they were the ones chosen by God when God called their ancestor Abraham and promised him many descendants. However, Jesus also confirmed that now a new time had come – because he came – where the worship of God would be opened up to all – all those that worship the Father in spirit and truth – which includes those outside the Jewish nation (all of us here).

In fact, God had already promised Abraham that – Genesis 12:3: “ … all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” and God had kept this promise in Jesus. The apostle Peter preached the following – Acts 3:24-26: “ … you [Jews] are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant [Jesus Christ], he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways [and then the Gentiles would be next].”

In the same vein we read in one of Paul’s letters – Galatians 1:6-2:7: “Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith … Christ redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit … You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus … There is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise … when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of children … ” [Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16; 1 John 4:2.]

Understand the argument. Abraham was saved by faith and now we Christians all over the world even though we are not Jews – all of us – have become his children and heirs – according to God’s promise that all nations would be blessed through him – because Jesus redeemed us, thus releasing to us the blessings of Abraham (what he had) – salvation by faith.[3]

Did you know that Abraham was your father? You are grafted into Jewish history and are co-heirs of all the stories in the Bible. We may have a national culture in Australia – Aboriginal culture is ancient and fascinating – but as Christians (those that do not worship the Rainbow Serpent) the history of the Bible makes us who we are – Gentiles who have come to inherit the blessings which God worked through his chosen people the Jews.

Then, we need to know that our relationship with the ethnic Jews – Christian or not – remains a defining factor for us – Romans 11:1-32 – the apostle Paul wrote: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew … I am talking to you Gentiles:  … If some of the branches have been broken off [Jews that do not believe are broken off in judgement], and you, though a wild olive shoot [not being part of original plant – the chosen nation], have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root [the rich inheritance of Jewish history], do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you … Israel has experienced a hardening … but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable … ” The ancient promises to Abraham still stand – including this one – Genesis 12:3: “ … I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse … ” We are the “wild olive shoot” – grafted in – while the Jewish nation remains the original – chosen – “olive tree” of God. We need to understand this to understand our identity.

We come to our last point. 3) Unless you worship the God who chose the Jews first, you will not worship God at all. As you learn about the God of history, you learn to worship the one true God.

This concerns all of us. Jesus used to warn his disciples against “the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” – “the yeast of these kind of religious teachers” – because – like yeast was contagious (permeating and working through the entire dough) – this kind of people would infect a faith community until everyone ended up with religion but no relationship with God – 2 Timothy 3:5: “having a form of godliness but denying its power … ” To some extent this kind of “yeast” is in all of us. We humans – and especially Bible teachers and theologians – love to take the Bible and – from the Bible – extract a neat system of belief – a body of truth – correct doctrines and flawless formulas – perfect procedures and ministry processes. Then, we publish learned books which no longer tell any stories but contain God in a number of theses.

For instance, one thesis states (and we Lutherans like this one): Lex semper accusat – the Law always accuses. It is true that when sinners like us are confronted with the holy and perfect law of God – the call on us to obey his law – we feel accused because we cannot live up to perfection. The holy standard of God accuses our imperfection. This is true but even our Lutheran Confessions know instances where the law of God does not accuse us but delight us.[4] There are numerous worshippers in the Bible who have cried out – Psalm 119:70: “I delight in your law.” 119:97: “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day longMoments come when we are so in love with God – full of the Holy Spirit – forgiven and clean – that we do nothing but delight in the purity of God – the beauty of holiness.

We need to be careful in formulating religious theses because faith is a relationship with God – a history – and in this relationship the feelings and experiences with God are not always the same. Most importantly – the Bible is not a book of theses but of story. Let me illustrate what I mean from the Bible – 2 Samuel 5:17-25: “When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, they went up in full force to search for him, but David heard about it and went down to the stronghold … David inquired of the Lord, ‘Shall I go and attack the Philistines? …’ The Lord answered him, ‘God, for I will surely hand the Philistines over to you.’ So David went … and defeated them … Once more the Philistines came up … so David inquired of the Lord, and he answered, ‘Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the balsam trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.’ So David did as the Lord commanded him, and he struck down the Philistines … ”

If David had made a religion out of his faith, he would have drawn up some theses after his first victory over the Philistines. “When enemies come against you, go up and meet them because the Lord will give the victoryHowever, this would have been wrong – religion and not relationship. What God wants is that we keep inquiring of him – remain connected to him – listening to his ongoing instructions – which change from circumstance to circumstance. When the Philistines came the second time, God changed the strategy. David was to circle around them and only attack after hearing the sound of marching in the tree tops. God is not a set of principles but a God of relationship which unfolds in the history with his people.

Therefore, we appreciate that God chose the Jews first as his special people and then – in due course – reached out – through them – to all people. This is the kind of God we worship. We have a history with him – a relationship.

I come to a close. Jesus was a Jew and the message of salvation is Jewish – coming out of God’s history with the Jews and now with us – the Gentiles. This is not to shock us but help us understand our faith. Take hold of him. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah – the Christ – our Passover lamb. Amen.




[1] Rev Tony Higton.

[2] Cf. Peter von der Osten-Sacken: Martin Luther und die Juden.

[3] Romans 1:1-6: “ … Christ Jesus … [God’s] Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead … Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace … to call people from among all the Gentiles [all those that are not Jews] to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ … ”

[4] Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VI: “According to the inmost self they delight in the law of God (cf. Romans 7:23) … ”