The New Testament
When we think of the new testament, we often think of the last 27 books of the bible. That is a mistake as the division in the testaments is a device of men, not of god. The first century Christian never conceived of an old testament and a new testament. For them, all sacred writings were nothing more or less than scripture. Why then, do we make this artificial distinction in sacred scripture?
The reason is both obvious and curious. We make a distinction in scripture because of the point at the division, something new was happening. By the time Jesus came onto the scene, it was not your father’s Judaism. They had fallen considerably in the eyes of the world, and in their own eyes as well. It had been a very long time since anyone thought of them as a superpower. When is the last time anyone thought of Turkey, or Greece, or Italy as a world beating superpower? Whatever answer you come up with, it had been longer than that since the Jewish glory days. Once, they were like the modern day America. They sunk to something like a modern day African state. They were not even worth spitting on.
They did not just slowly decline from greatness. They were ruthlessly beaten down by every powerful nation within reach. They were forced into a type of slavery that rivaled the Egyptian captivity. It may have been even worse. They were systematically stripped of every vestige of identity. At times, they had lost their collective memory of who they once were.
That sort of domination does bad things to the one being dominated. We have seen a bit of what that is like in our own American history. When we took slaves from Africa, we did not just capture them and force them to work. We stripped them of everything that identified them as a people. We destroyed their family groups. We took away their languages. We abolished their religion. To make matters worse, we were not interested in replacing it with something better. We raped their women. We had brutal overseers beat them into submission. We forbad them the privilege of learning to read and write. We would not allow them to own property. It was a very dark time for the American slave.
Some who conquered Israel did so with a genocidal fervor. They set out, not to kill the people, but to obliterate the culture. They did a pretty good job of it. Perhaps some of the hatred leveled at the Jews was due to the Jewish attitude of superiority over the rest of the world. The Jews were convinced that they were greater than all others because their god was greater than all other gods. They took much joy in rubbing that fact in the face of a lot of people. Nations were eager to show the Jews that their god was not as powerful as they believed. This point was proven so thoroughly and for so long that even the Jews believed it. There were only a handful that kept the faith. As a nation, Israel was beaten to a pulp and left for dead.
This is why Judaism looked so different in Jesus day than it did in David’s time. The Jews had forgotten who they were and absorbed the traditions and cultures of their conquerors. We can get a glimpse of what the change must have looked like. The American black is nothing like the African black. They live in two different worlds and have very different world views. The American black knows virtually nothing about Africa, from which their ancestors came. They speak the language of their captors. They have the values of their captors. They practice the religion of their captors. They marry the women of their captors. That is the sort of makeover the Jews had gone through.
Suddenly you see things in the gospel accounts that were foreign to the ancient Jews: things they seemed to accept without question. We see the synagogue appear out of nowhere. Money changing was a requirement to pay temple taxes. The Jewish hierarchy was subject to Rome. There were multiple denominations of Judaism. As an average Jew, it was impossible to know who to listen to. They had little idea of what orthodox Judaism was, let alone what teacher had the purist teaching. It was a mess.
What remained from the glory days was the desire for justice. They wanted their freedom. They wanted their nation back. They wanted to overthrow their enemies and reestablish the dominance of Israel. They wanted god to show himself and fulfill his promises which the Jews saw as outstanding.
The trouble was figuring out exactly how god was going to fulfill his promises. Different branches of Judaism had different ideas on the subject. The bible gives us only one of those views, but in the real world, it was never quite so clear cut. There were some that resonated with the message of Jesus. There were plenty more that did not. The Christian bible is rather self serving as it presents only the books and ideas that help tell one particular side of the story. Even so, that is the story we have. As Christians, to paraphrase a country song, that’s our story and we’re sticking to it. What the Jews of the bible clamored for was a redeemer, a savior, a messiah.
There is still the question of what type of messiah they had in mind. What did salvation look like for them? From what did they want to be saved. When answering that question, we will also discover the answer to another equally important question: when did they expect this salvation to take place.
The easiest question to answer is from what did they want to be saved. You can rest assured that salvation was something very different for them than it is for us. We might say that we want to be saved from the consequences of our sins. Some might even want to be saved from the reality of sin in their lives and that which permeates the environment throughout the world. For still others, salvation is just an assurance that they will not go to hell. Yet others want to acquire the joys of heaven.
For most Christians, salvation is a two part proposition. We somehow accept the offer of salvation from Jesus and in doing so, we are saved from that moment. This initial stage of salvation, though, carries few tangible evidences of that salvation. For most, their salvation is a matter of faith as they have no other way to prove it really happened. As I have stated before, and probably will again, their lives are just as much a mess today as it was before they were saved. Their marriage is still falling apart, their health is still declining, and their bank account balance is still shrinking. Our enemies still have power over us and we are still helpless to fight back. One might be tempted to ask, from what have we been saved?
The real salvation that brings an end to pain and sorrow and tears and toil does not actually happen until the second coming. A Jew might be tempted to ask how many times does our messiah need to come? Why do we even need a second coming? It seems the first one didn’t get the job done.
For the Jews, salvation had only one meaning. They wanted to be saved from oppression and suffering. They did not have a nuanced view of sin. For them, if you wanted to be free from the bonds of sin, you just had to stop sinning and make the proper atonement. They would not have understood a dialogue about sin between two modern Christians.
For them, sin had tangible results. Forgiveness meant that the consequences of sin would be lifted and they would have a fully restored relationship with god. A fully restored relationship with god meant that they would prosper in a tangible way. You could say that the Jewish gospel was the original prosperity gospel. They did not serve god because they felt warm and fuzzy about him. Most of the time, they were afraid of him. They served god because he offered them tangible and immediate protection and prosperity in this life, not in some future life to come. For them, that protection and prosperity was all wrapped up in the nation status of Israel. In short, they wanted to be a superpower again. At the very least, they wanted to stop being the world’s whipping boy.
Some Jews made it their mission in life to help make this dream a reality. Some did it by forming terrorist cults and slitting the throats of their enemies one at a time. In Jesus day, there was no military. Terrorists were the closest thing to an army the Israelites had. The terrorist method did not work. There was no army, and there could be no military victory. The Jesus sect found a way to declare victory without ever firing a shot. That, in essence, is the story of the new testament.
To Manufactured Triumphs
In Star Trek the next generation, season 7, episode 4, “Take Me Out to the Holosuite,” Captain Sisko encounters his arch rival from the academy. It is a Vulcan with far superior speed, strength, mental capability, etc. The Vulcan brings his ship to the station for repairs. While there, he challenges Sisko to a game of baseball, just to carry on the old rivalry and humiliate the captain further.
Sisko accepts the challenge and takes it all too seriously. He whips his crew into shape for the big game. The outcome of the game was as expected: a lopsided victory for the Vulcans. Rather than being humiliated, Sisko and his crew rise above the petty rivalry by some good humored taunting and a manufactured, rhetorical victory. It was a heartwarming story at a time in the characters’ lives when they could really use a victory. There was no way to attain an actual victory on the scoreboard, so they did the next best thing. They simply manufactured a victory. It was one of the greatest manufactured victories of all time. The greatest manufactured victory of all time goes, hands down, to the Christians.
Before taking a closer look at the manufactured triumph, let us look again at the victory the Jews had in mind. Remember, they had been in captivity for longer than any of them could remember. They could only imagine what it would be like to be a free, autonomous, and powerful state. Their sacred stories told of such times. They understood those stories to imply that the promise of a victorious state was an everlasting oath.
Also remember that they had not seen what they considered to be justice in a very long time. Most of them had never experienced anything resembling fairness. To them, justice had been too long delayed. They were in despair that god may have completely forsaken them and left them for dead in the hands of their enemies. They cried out for deliverance. It was not a spiritualized sort of deliverance, but a tangible one.
It was much the same when the children of Israel were enslaved in the land of Egypt. They were being tormented for reasons beyond their comprehension after a long period of prosperity in the land. They suffered under the lash and cried out to god. They were not asking for some type of spiritual solace. They were asking for a literal deliverance. They were looking for the same type of deliverance in Jesus’ day.
For the captive Jew, that deliverance would come in the form of a messiah. Once again, this was not some over spiritualized concept. A messiah was nothing more than a king with god’s blessing. The term, anointed one, has to do with the ceremony of appointing a king. Christ is just another word for messiah. It was not a particularly spiritual term and it was not specifically reserved for Jesus.
In fact, there were many messiahs. Saul, David, and Solomon were all considered messiahs as they were anointed ones of god. They were not god, they were simply god’s servant in the role of a king. Son of god and son of man also did not refer to god. Nor were they terms reserved exclusively for Jesus. In fact, son of god most directly referred to the Davidic line of kings. Son of man was also in use long before Jesus came on the scene, the point is, none of these were particularly spiritual terms. They referred to special men appointed by god to fulfill a role.
References to Jesus as the son of god, son of man, and messiah, marked him out as one contending for the kingship of Israel. That is the only thing messiah indicated to anyone who associated the term with Jesus. As it had come to be used in his day, a messiah was a deliverer. He would not be a peace time king like Solomon, rather, he would be a conqueror. To be any other kind of messiah was to be no messiah at all.
Now, you can begin to understand why the Jews throughout history, have rejected Jesus as a messiah. To them, he was no messiah. He has not restored the throne of David in the heart of Jerusalem. He raised no armies and overthrew no oppressors. His followers did not grow prosperous or victorious in any tangible way. Not only did Jesus not save Israel, he might be blamed, by some, for its destruction. Things certainly got worse, not better.
In no tangible way did he fulfill the role of messiah. Even if he did all of the legendary miracles ascribed to him, that would make him nothing more than a prophet, perhaps even a son of man, as they understood the term, but not a king. In order to make Jesus into a messiah, he and his followers would have to redefine almost every word in the Jewish dictionary. That is precisely what they did.
“Everything You Know Is Wrong”
Some years ago, there was a Weird Al Yankovic Song called “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Yankovic is a musical comedian who exchanges the words of popular songs for words with comedic value. In this particular song, Yankovic evokes many dreamlike images. The images conflict with each other. In this song, contradictions abound. Every aspect of the song represents one impossibility after another.
The chorus does not clear up any of the mysteries in the verses. It emphatically states that…
“Everything you know is wrong. Black is white, up is down and short is long, and everything you just thought was so important doesn’t matter. Everything you know is wrong. Just forget the words and sing along. All you need to understand is everything you know is wrong.”
Surely, Yankovic never intended to write a gospel song. Unwittingly, that is exactly what he did. With the words of the chorus quoted above, Yankovic gave a clearer and more accurate summary of the gospel message of Jesus than any preacher I have ever heard.
Every aspect of the message and presentation of Jesus screamed to the people that everything they knew and expected and hoped for was wrong. The meaning of traditional acts and common words was transformed into something different. Jesus even made it clear that the teachers of the law, regardless of denomination, had everything exactly backward. Consider the sermon on the mount. It starts out with a bang and just gets better from there.
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.” (Matt 5:3-12 NLT-SE)
In these few sentences, Jesus redefines what it means to be blessed. This was not the Mosaic view of blessing. This is not a Davidic formula. David would be praying that god smash out the brains of his enemies’ babies. This is also not a prophetic formula. Job would not recognize any of this as a blessing, nor would the wisdom writers. No one in Jerusalem and in all the known world considered themselves blessed because they were persecuted.
Consider the people who are supposed to be happy and considered blessed by god in the Jesusic formula. The poor, the sad, the humble, the unjustly treated, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Under the suffering sinner, or the generational curse formulations, most of these people were in their condition because they were getting exactly what they deserved. In these few verses, Jesus contradicted the Patriarchs, Moses, the kings, and the prophets. That was only the beginning.
With his next breath, he tells them that they are not useless, but useful. They are the salt of the earth. More to the point, they were the light of the world. A shining light should not be hidden under a bowl. They were not to think of themselves as the shame of the world, but the light of the world. The world would see their good works and glorify the father rather than laugh.
Next, Jesus informs them of his commitment to the law. It is the most important thing to Jesus. It is his purpose to see it fulfilled. He makes it clear that whoever breaks, or teaches someone to break the smallest of laws will be least in the sight of god. It is at this point in his speech where he begins to redefine much of what people understood to be the law.
Thou shall not kill became thou shall not hate. Thou shall not commit adultery became thou shall not lust. Disagreements were to be settled out of court. Divorce which was regulated under the law of Moses was strictly forbidden with few exceptions. Swearing solemn oaths was no longer allowed. The old ideas about justice such as an eye for an eye, also regulated by the law, was now wrong. There should be no retaliation or seeking legal recourse for being wronged by another. Now, if someone steals from you, you should give them even more. If someone hits you, make yourself an easier target for the next blow. Jesus is just getting warmed up.
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48 NLT-SE)
Which part of the law did Jesus get that from? Be perfect? Really? He goes on to tell them that they are giving incorrectly and praying incorrectly. Then, he drops another bombshell. He tells them that the way to have their sins forgiven is by forgiving others. He emphasizes this by saying that if they do not forgive others, they, themselves will not be forgiven. There is no such doctrine of forgiveness in the law. Back then, god was into smiting the enemies of his people, and his people were looking forward to it.
After telling them that they were fasting incorrectly, he dropped yet another bomb.
“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (Matt 6:19-21 NLT-SE)
In this passage, Jesus redefines what it means to have treasure. Storing up earthly treasure was the goal. That was, after all, the whole point of prosperity. Jesus casts earthly wealth in a bad light. What did that say about the ancients who were rewarded with earthly wealth?
Jesus when on in this manner throughout the rest of his ministry, redefining what it meant to be a Jew in good standing, and what reward and expectation should be like in this brave new world. The people were no longer poor, or hungry, or sick, or abused; they were blessed. Their reward was waiting for them in the heavenly realm. All they had to do to get it was to keep the law and be perfect as the father is perfect. You may think you kept the law by casting out demons and doing good deeds, but you still may be sent away as a stranger to god. Suffer well and bless the ones causing you to suffer. Be satisfied, even happy with your lot in life. Bear your unfair treatment quietly and be humble. That is the new definition of victory.
The rest is history.
Jesus’ followers crowned him king even though he left the scene with promises to return with heavenly hosts. The kingdom was invisible, not of this world. The treasure was in the heavenly bank. There was a mansion waiting for each faithful disciple. The lord would take revenge in his own good time. Consider persecution a badge of honor, in fact, it is a sign of righteousness. Don’t try to save your life: that is the best way to lose it. Don’t try to be first in line. Give way to others; by doing so, you will be first. Everything in the life of the Jew was recast so that it was no longer a bad thing, but a good thing. They just had to hang on a little longer and their reward would be arriving soon. That has been the line of the great religious hucksters for the last two thousand years.