As we read the Bible we see clearly where the Temple came from, how worship developed, songs to God, giving to God’s Church, even to some degree Baptism is present in ceremonial cleansing. However many of the things we see in the New Testament ministry of Jesus doesn’t seem to come from there. There is this whole new way of carrying out ministry.
The exile of the people of Israel from Jerusalem and from the Temple of God, called for a new way to carry out their religion. Israel’s people were spread throughout the Earth. From these changes came a new kind of leader known as the Rabbi.
“Rabbis were spiritual teachers who gathered followers or “disciples” around them. They had much influence upon the way the Jewish people thought and worshipped.” (Powers – Intertestamental)
The Christian faith follows the teachings of a first century Rabbi.
His was called Yeshuah, Jesus ben Joseph, or Jesus the son of Joseph.
Jesus’ ministry and His life are recorded in the four Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They report on Him from infancy to twelve years old, then again at the beginning of His ministry in His thirties. But there is this large gap in His life including His training and life he may have led that we know nothing about.
Today we’re looking at the training of the first century Rabbi Jesus Christ. Why do we care? One of the most difficult things for people to grasp in the Christian faith is the fact that Jesus Christ was fully God, but he was also fully human.
Jesus Christ is the only begotten son of God.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
Jesus is fully God.
John 10:30 says “I and the Father are One.”
But we see evidence of something else.
41As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it
34The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”
36Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
And yet Jesus was fully man.
Understanding that man and understanding parts of His life help us to understand what He meant when He spoke to us.
During the life of Jesus, training in the Word of God was taught from a very early age. According to Pastor Rob Bell (Mars Hill Bible Church) the children of Israel were sent to learn the Word of God (the Torah) from the age of six. Children would spend these early years, until age ten, in training with a Rabbi in what was called Bet Sefer or “the House of the Book”. (Bell 126) This is confirmed by a collection of Rabbinic sayings called the Mishnah, “At five years of age, one is ready for the study of the Written Torah, at ten years of age for the study of the Oral Torah.” (Bivin – Jesus)
The Jewish people were not only people following a religion, they believed that living by these laws was essential to the existence of their race. “Education wasn’t seen as a luxury or even as an option; education was the key to survival”. (Bell 125)
The prevalent Jewish theology of the day taught by a group called the Pharisees told the people that if they could live according to the law for as little as one day then the Messiah would finally come. (Powers – Intertestamental) Considering that train of thought, it is easy to understand how important education in the Law would be. The knowledge of the early training of the children of Israel gives a better understanding of how Jesus might have known so much about scripture at an early age. According to the New Testament, Jesus was a gifted student of the Torah,
“Everyone who heard Him was amazed at His understanding and His answers.” (NIV)
Though for most students formal schooling was over at age twelve, the gifted students would be allowed to stay involved. This education would include continuing in what was known as bet mid RASH (Bivin – Jerusalem). These most gifted students would often have the entire Torah memorized by the age of thirteen. (Bell 127) Jesus would have been well versed in the scripture by the age of twelve, when his parents found him listening and teaching in the Temple courts of Jerusalem.
42When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. 43After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.
The gifted among the students of formal Torah education would progress by becoming attached to a teacher, a Rabbi, to learn the practical ways that this Rabbi would teach and apply the Law. These students would follow the Rabbi in his daily life and learn from him through memorization (Bivin – Jesus), example, and questions (Bell 128).
These men would follow the Rabbi and, as part of their training, would learn the way that this Rabbi taught the Torah and how he lived out its teachings. Students would ask questions and the Rabbi would often answer the questions of his students with another question. The idea was not to frustrate them, but to get them to think about the question themselves until they had reached the root of the question. (Bell 128) These men would wrestle with the word to find the deeper meaning behind the words in the scriptures.
Jesus often answered questions with questions didn’t He? Answering with a question would cause the person to pause, find the answer themselves, or drop a spiteful question. (Greenwold)
In Matthew 19:16-17, Jesus is asked by a rich young man “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Instead of answering with a list of things to do, Jesus asks a question back, “Why do you ask me about what is good?”
He gets that young man to focus on God and not the task list.
“There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
It was not enough to just be able to quote the word; many could do that. They were concerned with how to live it, how to think it, how to put it in their hearts.
The name given to these students who followed the Rabbi was “disciple”. It may be hard for many Christians to believe, but the facts show that it is very likely that Jesus was a disciple of a Rabbi during his day. The book “Discovering the New Testament: Story and Faith” says it is believed by some that Jesus may have been a disciple of the prophet John the Baptist. (Hahn 98)
For some it does not make sense to think that the God-Man Jesus would require training such as this. But for Jesus to be who he was he had to live the life of a real man. Jesus rested, ate, wept, and became frustrated just like other human men. If this is the case, then whether needed or not, it is safest to assume that He would have gone through the experiences necessary to carry out His ministry.
It is also interesting to note that the disciples that Jesus chose appear to have come through an entirely different path. What does this say about what you and I can do in the faith? Does he expect that we must be trained from Birth to teach this new way?
Just like protestant ministers today, Rabbis of that day developed specific ways of interpreting and teaching the law. A given Rabbi’s way would be called his “Yoke”. The disciples of that Rabbi would be said to be ‘under’ that Rabbis’ ‘yoke’ and would be expected to know and follow that yoke. (Bell 49) A yoke was also a well known instrument in the first century for attaching ox to a given task (plow or cart).
It is not surprising then to read Jesus explaining His particular interpretations of scripture as His yoke.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus had a way of breaking the scriptures down into smaller and more practical forms.
In Matthew (v.22:37-39) when He is asked a common question of the day, “Which is the greatest commandment.”
Jesus answers by breaking the entire law and all of the prophecy of the Bible down into two commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
A more complete knowledge of what the term ‘Yoke’ meant at this time in history helps to better understand what Jesus was saying and how he wanted people to live their lives in tune with God.
A continuation of the Rabbinic sayings in “the Mishnah” tell that at the age of thirty a disciple might look forward to starting his own journey as a Rabbi, “…at fifteen for the study of halachot [rabbinic legal decisions], at eighteen for marriage, at twenty for pursuing a vocation, at thirty for entering one’s full vigor”. (Bivin – Jesus)
Jesus ministry is said to have started at the age of thirty.
“Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when He began His ministry.” (NIV)
This helps us understand why the ministry of Jesus is introduced at age thirty. This fact further solidifies that belief that Jesus was following the training and life of a Rabbi of the first century.
The facts that surround the ministry of Jesus and the known facts about the life of a first century Rabbi make it possible to paint a picture of what portions of his life were like during the gap in time between the child of twelve and the man of thirty that is met in the four Gospels of the New Testament.
The young gifted student is seen in Luke 2 and can be seen as pursuing his education in the word based on that gift.
The young Rabbi is heard using terms such as ‘Yoke’ that come from a day and an education that he may well have participated in.
Jesus is known to have been a teacher who asked questions rather than giving unfulfilling answers and this again fits that mode of operation found in the Rabbi of the day. It can easily be believed that Jesus spent much of the missing time of His history in learning and perfecting of His craft as teacher.
What does this mean for us as believers?
Jesus is not asking us to do something He didn’t do.
He wasn’t magically equipped to teach us. He did the homework. He spent the time. But beyond that
· He was a teacher, but also a student
· He wept for us
· He was overwhelmed by sorrow and grief
· He had friends and family …those people, disappointed Him, Loved Him, laughed with Him, and ate with Him
· He was among the fallen and yet he did not sin.
We can walk in His way because He did.
New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Hahn, Roger / Neale, David / Serrao, Jeanne / Spross, Dan / Tashijan, Jirair. Discovering the New Testament: Story and Faith. Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2006.
Powers, Dr. D. G.. Lecture: The Religious Setting of the Time of Jesus. 11 July 2007 http://online.nbc.edu
Powers, Dr. D. G.. Lecture: The Intertestamental Period. 11 July 2007 http://online.nbc.edu
Bivin, David. Jesus’ Education. 11 July 2007 http://cometozion.org/Torah%20Scholar.htm
Bivin, David. Jerusalem Perpective Online. 11 July 2007 http://www.jerusalemperspective.com/default.aspx?tabid=530
Greenwold, Doug. Being a First-Century Disciple. 11 July 2007 http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=4867