By David Sedaca
We can assess the Jewishness of Jesus by His relationship to the people of His day, by His relationship to the Jewish religion, and by His relationship with His followers.
His own Jewishness stands out when we consider the audience of most of His teachings. He spoke to the common folk: fishermen, farmers, tax collectors, housewives, inquisitive rabbis, learned teachers of the Torah. What do these people all have in common? They made up the fabric of the Jewish community at the time of Jesus. They are all Jewish, and they all connected to His message – or even reacted negatively – because they understood what Jesus was saying.
In addition, we see Jesus’ Jewishness by the way He practiced the Jewish religion of His day. Although He did say “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago… but I tell you…” (Mt. 5:21-22), He does not deny the validity of what was said before the instruction (Torah) that was handed down from Mount Sinai and constituted the core of the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Rather, He provides a new understanding of this instruction.
Jesus went to synagogue, He went to the Temple, and He upheld the Law and the commandments. He affirmed the value of Scripture; what’s more, He condemned any intent to modify what was written (Mt. 5:18-19).
What Jesus did condemn was the hypocrisy of some religious leaders – those who took such a strong stand on the letter of the law but were leaving behind the spirit of the law. There is a misconception that Jesus utterly rejects the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. But although Jesus does condemn their sternness and hypocrisy, He rejects neither their function nor their teaching. This is clearly seen when Jesus says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you, but do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Mt. 23:2-3)
Nowhere do we find that Jesus came to start a new religion that would be different from what God had revealed to the Jewish people. Jesus’ teaching was about the Kingdom of God having arrived in the midst of the people of Israel – not a new people, not a new religion. His was a message of repentance and new birth.
All the events of His life and ministry are in harmony with what the prophets of old had foretold about the life and ministry of the One who was to come in fulfillment of God’s specific promises to Israel. In Jesus there is perfect unity between the faith of Israel and the faith He expects of all His followers. For His Jewish audience, Jesus’ teaching complemented and fulfilled their own Jewishness, and for His Gentile audience, Jesus’ teaching supplemented what was missing in their faith and understanding.
Finally, we see the Jewishness of Jesus by considering the people He chose to be His disciples. I often make this point in my sermons when, in jest, I say (to the surprise of my audience) that Jesus chose the wrong people to be His disciples and the foundation of His church.
I go on to say that if Jesus would have asked “my advice” on whom to appoint, I would have suggested a different Twelve. I would have chosen three Greeks who could argue for the validity of His new “philosophy.” I would then have added three influential Romans because it is always good to have “connections in the right places” to be successful. Then I would have added three outstanding members of Israel’s ruling class in order to gain the respect of the masses. And I would have completed the Twelve by adding two fishermen from the Galilee to carry the bags and a Publican to be the accountant.
But no – Jesus chose twelve common, simple, unsophisticated Jewish men to carry out His message and to be witnesses of His resurrection.
We cannot fully understand the person of Jesus unless we understand Him as a Jew, and when we do so, we see that the barrier that He broke down between Jew and Gentile is more difficult to build up again.