An often overlooked component of the life of Jesus the Messiah is the fact that He was a Jew. He was born to Jewish parents and raised in the Judaic faith. While He is the incarnate Son of God, we must be conversant of the settings in which Jesus ministered. The culture, political climate, economics, technology, education, and the ways of sharing information are some of the conditions of which we must be aware. The gospels record Jesus as obedient to the Law for daily living, and He conducted Himself as a rabbi or teacher to the Jewish faithful. Luke 3:23 notes, for example, that He followed Judaic Law, which prescribes a man could not become a rabbi until the age of thirty.

The manner in which Jesus conducts His ministry with a group of disciples is virtually identical to how Jewish rabbis performed their duties. A rabbi would gather young men to be students or disciples. Typically, a young man would graduate from rabbinical school, approach a rabbi of his choice, and request of him to become a disciples or student. If the rabbi agreed, the young man would join the group. During the training period, the students would be responsible for the physical needs of the leader, which meant the rabbi could devote his time to the duties of a rabbi as well as teach and lead his disciples. After a period, two or three years, the rabbi would deem his education complete, and the student became a rabbi. In the same way, Jesus, as He assumed the role and authority of a rabbi, gathered a group of followers, but in this case, He approached the candidates and called them to follow Him or to become a disciple. Luke 8:1-3 explains that as a rabbi Jesus would depend upon the disciples for His daily needs as well as the generosity and kindness of others. As He travelled from place to place, Luke 10:38-42 notes that Jesus would stay in private homes. The Synoptic gospels tell that Jesus would always visit synagogues on the Sabbath to teach, debate Scripture, and proclaim the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven. Unlike the rabbis, Matthew 7:28-29 explains that Jesus taught as one with authority, and this unique teaching style prompted amazement and consternation in those who heard Him.

In accordance to the Law, the attire of Jesus is a seamless robe with tassels (tzitziyot) at the four corners of the garment as Numbers 15:37-41 and Deuteronomy 22:12 stipulate. Jesus repeatedly said that He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. Rather than viewing the Law as a body of legal and rabbinical interpretations, Jesus accepted them as defining the relationship between God and His people. As a fulfillment of the Law, Jesus assumed the authority to clarify and reveal the true meaning of the Law. He affirmed the Law when He gave the great commandment, as seen in Matthew 22:37-39 and Mark 12:30-31, to love the Lord with all the heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. By upholding “the Law in its relational emphasis, He makes the point that our relationship to God should impact how others are treated as well.” [1]

Scripture reveals almost nothing about the childhood and education of Jesus. While there is one specific mention of His childhood in Luke 2:51-52 of His increasing in stature and wisdom, we can assume that Jesus, a child of Jewish parents, attended Beth Midrash (elementary) school. The incident of His remaining in Jerusalem after Passover and His parents finding Him in the Temple conversing with the teachers reveal that Jesus had received some instruction, but He did not attend rabbinical school. We know this because when He taught in the Temple, John 7:15 tells how people questioned how became learned having never been educated. In this context, they were referring to rabbinical school training. It was in this level of education that students would gain recognition as possessing the requisite authority to interpret and exegete Scripture. Despite having not attended rabbinical school, the Gospels record that with “subtlety, and a native wit, and awareness, the conflict of Jesus with his scribal, Pharasaic, and other opponents reveals, but not necessary the learning of the schools, although he could hold his own with verbal opponents and must, therefore, have had a lively awareness of their methods, of not an exact knowledge of it.” [2]

When we read the words of Jesus, it is easily seen that He had an in-depth understanding of many aspects of Jewish life. “He was knowledgeable in farming, sowing seeds, detecting weeds, and reaping a harvest. He was at home in the vineyard, knew the times of reaping fruit from vine and fig tree, and was aware of the wages paid for a day's work.” [3] His interaction with common folk revealed He “was no ivory-tower theologian expounding abstract and obtuse theories; He was someone with His feet very much on the ground, able to talk to ordinary people in ordinary terms.” [4] Later when He was teaching in the Temple, Matthew 21:23-27 tells how the chief priests questions by what authority Jesus is teaching. We can safely assume the chief priests and religious leaders knew when they confronted Him that He had not attended rabbinical school.

At the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the commonly spoken language with Hebrew the language for reading and writing. “The New Testament writers usually called it 'Hebrew', thus not distinguishing in name between it and its sister language in which most of the Old Testament was written.” [5] While Aramaic and Hebrew were likely spoken by the Jews before the exile and they could converse in both, during the Babylonian exile, Aramaic came to become the dominate language for verbal interaction. Study of the Law would continue in Hebrew, but the ascendency of Aramaic meant an increasing number of Jews were unable to read the Law. Therefore, speaking Aramaic, the rabbi would read the Scripture and then supplement the reading with an application or lesson so the audience could better understand.

As a Jew, the ministry of Jesus was focused on the kingdom of heaven. We are all familiar with the term “kingdom” from books and movies. Needless to say, life in a kingdom was significantly different than we in the Western world are accustomed. At the time of Jesus, a kingdom was a nation ruled by a monarch, king or queen, possessing near absolute authority over those who lived within his or her domain. Civil and political liberties were as granted by the crown and individual rights including legal justice, due process, and the opportunity to live free were often minimal. Everything belonged to the crown, and the upper classes or nobility was regarded as superior to the common people.

This was the situation in which those who lived in the Promised Land at the time of Jesus found themselves. They were subjects of Rome as the Roman Empire had conquered a large portion of the known world in their quest for strategic dominance. Foreign troop would swagger around and command their subjects, Jew and Gentile alike, to carry backpacks and equipment. Arrogant centurions would offend, laugh, and not care. Everywhere you looked were unmistakable signs of occupation. In the case of the Chosen People, as the Jews of the Promised Land called themselves, the occupation was even more galling because they could remember the promises of God throughout the Old Testament.

Regardless of how those who lived in the kingdom may have thought or felt of the sovereign, obedience was mandatory. If the crown thought anyone to be disloyal or rebellious, action would be taken to eliminate the malcontents. We can see an example of this type of behavior when Herod the Great (37-4 BCE upon learning of the birth of a new king in Bethlehem, meaning Jesus, orders the slaughter all males under the age of two. Listening to an angel who warns them, Joseph had fled with his family to Egypt before Herod could act. That the crowds who followed Jesus held this view of the word “kingdom” was evident when they thought to lead a revolt with Jesus their king after the miracle of feeding the five thousand only to see Him, as John 6:15 explains, retreat up the mountain. When He enters Jerusalem, people lay down palm leaves and shout “Hosanna”. The laying down palm leaves and “Hosanna” are a typical welcome for a worldly king. As a matter of interest, one of the charges against Jesus at His trial was that He was seeking to establish a kingdom in defiance of Rome. This is one of the things Jesus had to guard against when speaking of a kingdom, for it would be easy for His message to be misunderstood as a call for rebellion. In fact, the Zealots, a small sect, advocated just such a course of action against the Romans. Another danger He faced when speaking of the kingdom was that someone opposed to Him would go the Romans and purposefully misinterpret His message so as to suggest an actual or imminent revolt.

In His quest to explain the kingdom of heaven, Jesus had to deal with a dilemma many experiences when trying to explain a new concept. Parents and teachers know that the spoken word as a method to convey knowledge is sometimes difficult and frustrating. Should the topic be seen, heard, or touched, this makes the explanation much easier. If, however, the topic is spiritual in nature, the difficulty of effectively communicating the message greatly increases as well as the probability of misunderstanding. Should the concept be outside the other person’s paradigm, this compounds the problem. If this were not difficult enough, imagine that your listener assigns different meanings of some of the words you would use which would perfectly convey your message. This was the situation Jesus encountered when He tried to explain the kingdom. To help His audience understand, Jesus thought to use everyday events and activities to explain the behaviors and attitudes of those who were of the kingdom. Similar to rabbis and teachers of His day, Jesus spoke parables to share His message. As a point of interest, the use of parables was not unique to Jesus. Rabbis often used this tool in their teaching, and the Old Testament contains several notable parables, the most famous being the prophet Nathan confronting the sins of King David and Bathsheba. Because those who lived at the time of Jesus were familiar with parables, Jesus was able to utilize parables in His ministry.

Today, we have a great advantage in that the New Testament contains much of what Jesus said about the kingdom of heaven. However, reading the words of Jesus about the kingdom often leads to confusion since it is difficult to “translate” what He said some two thousand years ago into our world today. Many of His parables have layers upon layers of meaning and subtle references to God’s relationship with His creation, so it is easy to overlook profound truths. For example, what did it mean in the story of the Prodigal Son when the Father sees his son coming towards him and runs to greet him? If you know the cultural norms of the day, the significance of the father’s action would bring tears to your eyes because it was unheard of for a man of the stature of the father to conduct himself with such abandon in public. If you knew how a shepherd cares and loves his sheep, you would be overjoyed at the parallel between the shepherd finding the one lost sheep and God reaching out to a lost sinner. If you know how it is to look desperately for work to feed yourself and your family only find a job for an hour, but to be paid as if you worked the entire day, and compare this to the love of God who does the same for believers. There are dozens of such gems hidden in the parables of Jesus reveal themselves only with an understanding of the time and culture of when He spoke. An understanding of these passages, unfortunately, covered with dust by the passage of time, will mean a much richer, deeper, and more rewarding reading of the kingdom of heaven and the opportunity to experience the love of God previously unknown.

The kingdom of heaven was a topic of which Jesus frequently spoke in parables. Due to the political and religious environment of the time, He could not speak directly of the kingdom, so He spoke of the attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of those in the kingdom. From the parables as found Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we can gain a fairly complete picture of the kingdom. At the time of Jesus, the spoken word was the predominate method to exchange ideas or concepts. This heavy reliance on the spoken word to facilitate the exchange of knowledge was largely due to the technological and educational limitations at the time of Jesus. Instruction was recitation and memorization. The methods to teach reading and writing beyond the basics were largely unavailable. While some, primarily in the royal or priestly class, were proficient at reading and writing, the majority of those whom Jesus associated were functionally illiterate. This is not to say they were ignorant or stupid; it means learning and sharing knowledge were different from today as well as the cultural norms of an acceptable level of education. To study the interaction between the Pharisees and Jesus on points of the Jewish Scripture is to realize the depth of knowledge these men possessed as they debated and interpreted Scripture.


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