A formidable obstacle on a Christian’s path to spiritual maturity is unawareness, or perhaps even neglect, of his or her rich Jewish heritage and the Jewish background of the New Testament.
We read the Pauline epistles and regard them as instruction for the mature believer. However, Paul was writing mainly for new believers recently converted from paganism. He was not writing for a fourth-generation Christian, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were believers. Grappling with the task of teaching new converts, Paul said, “I wish I could give you meat, but you still have need of milk.” Paul spent much time explaining elemental things like baptism. He invested much energy elaborating on what he called “the great mystery.” And what was the great mystery? That Gentiles could have salvation without circumcision. Now this is obviously nothing new to ten-year-old believers. Yet we expend considerable time rehashing the great mystery in our preaching and teaching. These basics should not constitute the principal diet for mature believers in Jesus. There is nothing more beautiful than a baby, but a ten-year-old baby is not so beautiful, and a twenty-year-old baby is a tragedy.
We are too often hearers of the Word rather than doers of the Word. “Hearers only” perhaps epitomizes today’s Christians. If our actions are awry, that seems to be not nearly so important as if our beliefs are amiss. Orthodoxy is held high above orthopraxis. The real test, however, is not what we believe, as important as that is, but what we do. Do our beliefs produce fruit? The sort of thinking that demotes praxis is the result of abandoning our Jewish heritage.
In many ways the theology and practice of today’s orthodox Jews are not identical to the theology and practice of first-century Jews. Yet the modern synagogue has not lost the emphasis on being doers of the Word to the extent the church has, to our shame.
Much of the New Testament background is left unwritten. Why? To spell out this Jewish background to an audience already acquainted with it would have been superfluous. Baptism, for instance, is emphasized in our circles. The New Testament mentions it quite often, yet the New Testament never explains how it is done. Bob Lindsey, a Southern Baptist pastor from Norman, Oklahoma, came to Jerusalem, studied his Jewish roots, and discovered what Jewish baptism entails. This, incidentally, mitigated the problem of his artificial leg, which filled with water during a baptism. Jewish baptism is self-administered. To be a good Baptist, Bob realized, he no longer needed to wade into the water and dunk the new believer; he could ensure that the believer was completely submerged while standing on a dry spot at the water’s edge. The believer waded into the water alone, gave a testimony, and submerged himself or herself.
Where can we acquire the necessary historical background to the New Testament? Can we find it in secular Hellenistic literature? Can we learn it from Socrates, Plato or Aristotle? No! We acquire the Jewish background to the New Testament from ancient Jewish sources like the Mishnah, Mechilta, Sifre, Sifra and the scrolls of the Dead Sea community.
Consider Christians’ lack of emphasis on central commandments such as almsgiving, found both in Judaism and in the New Testament. We regularly put money in the offering basket. But do we help the poor? Based on the teaching of Jesus, there is good reason to conclude that, essentially, only money given to the needy is deposited in our heavenly bank account. Money we donate to building and other church programs— perhaps even to evangelistic outreach programs—may not be entered in our heavenly account. We may be surprised one day to learn that we have little balance in our heavenly account, because we were not helping the poor. Jesus said, “Lay up treasure in heaven.” In Hebrew, this heavenly treasure is called tsedakah, or, in English, alms or charity. How many Christians have seen the alms boxes in synagogues? In Israel, we find them not only in synagogues, but in supermarkets, post offices, and other public places.
Two other commandments we de-emphasize, but which are central in Judaism, are hospitality and visiting the sick. There are few references to these fundamental obligations in the New Testament. The writers of the Epistles, assuming their readers were receiving regular instruction on these commandments, mentioned them only briefly. Take, for example, hospitality, or what is called in Hebrew hachnasat orhim. Romans 12:13 says, “Contribute to the needs of the saints. Practice hospitality,” or, similarly, Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” Romans 15:7 encourages us to welcome one another. 1 Peter 4:9 declares, “Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another.” Note, too, that “by faith Rahab did not perish with the disobedient.” Hebrews 11:31 explains that it was because she gave a friendly welcome to the spies—hachnasat orhim.
What about visiting the sick? Bikur Cholim Hospital is Jerusalem’s oldest hospital. What is the meaning of the hospital’s name? Literally, bikur cholim means “visiting the sick.” At the last judgment, the Son of Man will say to the righteous, “I was sick and you visited me.”
Judaism identifies in Scripture “mitzvoth aseh,” or, positive commandments. Usually, we do not break positive commandments intentionally. Often laziness coupled with unawareness of the importance of these commandments causes us to neglect them. When was the last time we visited someone outside our immediate family in a hospital? When was the last time we took a stranger into our home? When was the last time we brought joy or encouragement to someone in prison? When was the last time we clothed and fed a poor man? When was the last time we visited an orphan, or a widow?
We probably are embarrassed by these questions. But such acts—not good feelings, not Holy Spirit goose bumps—are the recipe for living out a life of faith, both on an individual and congregational level. What did James write? “Religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of our God and Father is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.”
I raise these questions because these are the criteria by which we will be judged at the Great Judgment:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne of glory. And before him will be gathered all the gentiles. And he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left.”
When will this awesome event occur? This teaching of Jesus is not a parable, as it is sometimes labeled, but a future event that will take place after Jesus’ return.
Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you hosted me [hachnasat orhim]; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me [bikur cholim]; I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:31-36).
Let us survey a few examples from rabbinic literature. The Mishnah exhorts the people of Israel to open their homes to the poor and make them members of their households. From the Talmud we learn that one who receives his fellow man kindly is compared to one who receives the Divine Presence. Again, the Talmud says that the one who visits the sick will be saved from Gehenna.
Note this wonderful passage from the Midrash on Psalms: “In the world to come a man will be asked what was his occupation? If he replies, ‘I fed the hungry,’ then they will say to him, ‘This is the gate of the Lord. He who feeds the hungry, let him enter.’” The same is said to be true for giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, looking after orphans, and doing similar deeds of loving kindness, gemilut hasadim, as it is called in Hebrew. All these are gates of the Lord. Those who do such deeds shall enter.
We fail to practice these commandments partly because of human nature. We are tired. We are lazy. We neglect responsibilities. But we also fail due to faulty teaching in the church. We have not been instructed about the necessity of doing God’s will in these areas. We have turned away from our Jewish roots. We have cast aside our moorings and, as a result, we are adrift.
Let me elaborate. What is the number one question in Israel and in the greater Jewish world? In Israel, we read about it in the newspapers every week. It is, “Who is a Jew?” that is, how do we define Jewishness? Is it genetic? Does it come from one’s mother? Is it derived from one’s father?
I believe that “Who is a Jew?” is also a vitally important question for Christians. What is the issue? Assimilation.
Each year, at Passover, Jewish fathers tell their children, “God brought me out of Egypt; I was there.” We, too, know something about being present vicariously—when Christ died, I died. Was I really there on the cross with Jesus? Yes, I was.
If we forget who we are; if we become too removed from our Jewish heritage, then we easily assimilate back into the secular, hedonistic culture out of which we came. This is the importance of knowing who we are, of knowing who is a Jew.
Let us take one more example of a commandment that is underemphasized in the Christian community—tochehat re’acha (admonishing one’s fellow). This commandment—the mutual giving and accepting of rebuke—is important if we intend to have healthy congregations. By the way, the need we have for correction is an important reason for being part of a fellowship of believers. We should not be islands unto ourselves. Scripture exhorts us not to neglect assembling together. The interaction, rubbing against one another, giving and accepting of reproof, files away our rough edges and perfects our character.
The giving of reproof is a biblical injunction, found in Leviticus 19:17: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly [or as some translations have it, ‘You shall surely rebuke him’], so that you will not share his guilt.” Jesus said: “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Matthew’s version of this saying reads: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Hebrews 3:13 exhorts: “But rebuke one another every day, while it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Paul instructed Timothy: “Proclaim the word, be alert in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke and encourage with great patience and teaching.” In Romans 15:14 Paul says: “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to admonish one another.”
I suspect that Paul was thinking of the commandment to “rebuke your neighbor” when he wrote to the Ephesians about maturing through “speaking the truth in love.” Otherwise, his words do not make much sense. Let me cite the whole passage.
And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some shepherds and teachers to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men and their scheming, instead, speaking the truth in love we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Eph. 4:11-15)
The Qumran community’s Manual of Discipline, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, commands: “Each member of the community shall rebuke his fellow in truth, in humility, and in love.”
In Ben Sirach, one of the books of the Apocrypha, we read:
There is a reproof which is not timely; and there is a man who keeps silent but is wise. How much better it is to reprove than to stay angry! And the one who confesses his fault will be kept from loss.
Like Jesus, other Jewish sages spoke often about the importance of rebuking. They taught:
“Do not hate your brother in your heart.” [This is a quotation from Leviticus 19:17, which goes on to speak about rebuking one’s brother.] You might have supposed that you must refrain from striking him, slapping him, or cursing him; therefore, the verse says, “in your heart.” How do we know that if a man sees something unseemly in his neighbor, he is obliged to reprove him? Because it is said, “You shall surely rebuke him.”
In words that remind us of Jesus, Rabbi Tarfon said:
“I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who accepts reproof. Someone says to someone else, ‘Remove the speck from your eye.’ The other responds, ‘You remove the log from your eye.’”
Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said:
I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to give reproof in love and to accept reproof willingly in love.
Hachnasat orhim (welcoming strangers), bikur cholim (visiting the sick), and tochehat re’acha (admonishing one’s fellow) are concepts and practices that are foundational to Judaism, both modern and ancient. They are foundational to the teachings of Jesus and Christianity, too. Yet visiting the sick, extending hospitality and admonishing one another are often not emphasized in Christian preaching and teaching. Part of the reason is that we are human. The flesh is weak. Keeping a constant eye on the poor and downtrodden is wearying. Giving and receiving admonition are not easy. Part of the reason, however, is that we have become disconnected from our Jewish roots. We no longer read, preach and teach the Bible with the same accentuation Jesus and the first disciples read, preached and taught their Bible. We would like to do better, but we are scattered in our efforts. My prayer is that we may become more effective doers of the Word. But before we can accomplish this goal, we must direct our attention back, back toward our Jewish roots, and begin reading, preaching and teaching our Bible with a new sensitivity to its message.
The recording below is of a sermon preached on July 29, 1995 by David N. Bivin at Jerusalem’s historic Narkis Street Congregation.