Yes, our Lord was a Jewish Rabbi. He was not a Christian minister as most of us like to think. He was a Rabbi, a Jew in His tradition and religion, not simply from which ethnic group he belonged, or which country he came from. He was considered to have started new teaching by the scholars of His time, the teaching of which were originally known as the Way. Not the Christian. Its symbol was a scratched image of a fish, not a cross.
We are only called Christians in Acts 11:26, but it was a mocking name to the church in Antioch at the beginning. To be Christian itself means to be a follower of Christ, and we are supposedly to mimic Him even in His sufferings. But the Christianity today is very different from the world of Christianity in the first century. Especially when it is compared to the world of the Jews, its root, very much different. To be honest, we must realize that Jesus did not come from the world of Christianity as we know it today. So please don’t assume He’s the same as the rest of us. Of course, He is a Servant of God. But do not think He is a Christian minister, as what you think a Servant of God is today. He was a Jew and in His Jewishness, He was a Rabbi. A spiritual teacher of the Jews.
This writing is not about denying the divinity, nor the humanity of Jesus. He is God and He also became that Man, 2,000 years ago. This article will explain who He really was in His profession and what He did for all of us. May we all love Him more and want to be like Him more.
The image above is from this website: My Jewish Learning
Pay attention to this verse, Luke 4:17-21 (NIV).
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,(Isaiah 61:1-2)
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The moments where the Lord finished reading those verses above, were the moments where officially He had just started His ministry on this earth. The Lord quoted Isaiah 61:1-2. He had just finished being baptized by John the Baptist in Luke 3:21, verse 22, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. Later He was tempted in Luke 4:1-13, verse 14 says, Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.
Now, we like to think that when Jesus stood up to read the Scripture, in verse 16, He was just like one of the people in our church who stood up to read the Bible and to share something, or to testify. Maybe this was true, at least for the moment when it was happening at that time. After all, wasn’t Jesus in the synagogue, the congregation of the Jews, so-called the church of the Jews by many of us? Verse 16, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. Furthermore, because of the later conflicts with the scribes and Pharisees, we also like to assume that Jesus must not be one of them, not the scholars, not the scribes, not the Jewish priests. This understanding is actually not wrong, but often we take it too far. The conclusion we drew actually obscure who Jesus really was at that time.
Look at this, if someone stands in a sudden in front of a congregation only to testify or to share, of course, that would ok for the church owner or the church leader to allow that. It’s okay, it’s alright, they would say. The permitted person may share his testimony or his story with those who would hear him. But it is not that simple when the opportunity is given to “take part in the pulpit ministry”. We all know that for a person to stand up to preach or to teach God’s Word, that person must not be just a “layman”. He must be at least have passed the school of ministry, or a bible school somewhere. Or at least he must be a senior member of the congregation or has been with the Pastor for a long time. Have a close relationship on higher ground, to whom the church belongs. Not to God, what I mean here. Well, the logic has to be that way, but often what happens is that even if that person is close to God but not close to the Pastor of the Church, don’t expect that person to get an opportunity to preach from that Church’s pulpit.
This is good because a Pastor’s job is indeed to watch over his flock from being poisoned by someone he doesn’t know, right? But why do we think now that that day Jesus could have just stood up and taken part in the “pulpit” at that time directly? Aren’t we assuming that he was an outsider, not a scribe, much less a Pharisee, not one of them? Do you think Jesus could simply be given the opportunity to read God’s Word? Verse 17, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written.
Of course, Synagogue is a different entity from a church. They are not the same at all. The synagogue is a community center, a marketplace location, where they house a library of Torah and common people would sit around to listen (or read) to the teachings of the Rabbis. Do you think Jesus was only one of the common people, not known by the Synagogue leaders to be handed the scroll of Isaiah to read? No, they all knew Him. And because they did know Him well, they expected Him to deliver a good reading as a young dynamic Rabbi.
Notice this, Jesus was not one of the Pharisees, nor Sadducees. Not even an Essenes, much less a Zealot. Yes, Jesus had a disciple who was a Zealot, Luke 6:15, but he was not a Zealot himself. But what is clear here is that Jesus was a Rabbi, a teacher of Judaism religion. That’s why in Luke 4:17, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Surely the Synagogue leader would not carelessly give Him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to be read in front of the Jewish congregation in the ritual reading of the scriptures called K’riat haTorah or קריאת התורה if Jesus was not recognized as a Rabbi Himself.
So, He was not just a layman, an uneducated person. But in the Jewish community, you could say there are almost no lay people, at least in the time of Jesus. Children from their youth have been taught the Scriptures. God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:7 NKJV, you shall teach them diligently to your children, is really applied in the Jewish community. Not only that, they are used to memorizing scriptures from their childhood. The evidence that Jesus had a discussion in the Temple when He was 12 years old, shows that his parents taught Him well about the Scriptures.
Luke 2:46-47, After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.
So Jesus was well known to the leaders of the Synagogue in Galilee and recognized as a Rabbi.
Luke 4:22, All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
Matthew 13:54-57, Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.
Yes, it was because they knew him so well that they were dismayed to discover Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, Luke 4:21.
There are many verses that mention how the Lord was called Rabbi by many people, not just by His disciples. So it is not surprising that in Luke 4:17, He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Yes, the Synagogue leader was expecting an extraordinary reading of the K’riat haTorah at that time from this young popular, and dynamic Rabbi.
- In John 3:2, Jesus was called Rabbi by Nicodemus. A scribe who came to reason with the Lord at night about born again.
- Also in John 8, those who tried to set the Lord by bringing in a woman caught in adultery, called on the Lord, Rabbi. John 8:4, and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. Teacher, or Rabbi, (Rav רב ) is an honorable vocation within the Jewish community. If Jesus himself was not a Rav, then His enemies would not have called him with that title for sure. Why would you call someone an honorable name when you do not like him? Because that title itself would be their main slander. If we listen carefully to what the Bible said about their enmity with Jesus, you would notice that they didn’t really mind with the Rav-ness of the Lord, but with was His claim to be the Son of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One.
- He was not only called Rabbi, but like every Rabbi He walked in His ministry and discipleship wearing a prayer shawl with a tassels on its end. These tassels are not just like the regular ends of a long piece of cloth which are let loose, not sewn together. But it is a knot, a bundle of thread tied together, a ritual tassel tied in such a way according to Jewish religious tradition, tied to the 4 ends of the prayer shawl. This is called Tzitzit. Notice in Luke 8:44 (Tree of Life Translation), she came up from behind and touched the tzitzit of Yeshua’s garment. Immediately, her blood flow stopped. So the woman was not just touching the cloth, the garment of the prayer shawl, she was came in contact touching the Tzitzit, the tassels which the Lord would usually holds when He prays in His prayer rituals as a Rabbi. From there the healing power of prayer flowed out immediately!
- Another sign that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi was that He built the Torah fence. Matthew 5:27-28, You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that everyone who looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The Lord’s statement, But I tell you, was called the fence of the Torah and only a Rabbi has the capacity to say that, not a layman. So when Jesus said this, He spoke it not in His capacity as the Son of God, but as the Rabbi of the Jews, the Teacher of Israel.
For sure in the Bible itself, it is not clear who was Jesus’ teacher in this matter. Like Paul, he studied under Rabbi Gamaliel, Acts 22:3, Jesus certainly couldn’t have been a Rabbi by Himself. But probably because of Jesus’ understanding and intelligence, Luke 2:47, no Rabbi at that time would boldly claim Jesus as His disciple. Furthermore, when they all knew about this young Rabbi’s claimed of who He really was. Yes, that’s how life is. If we succeed, many people like to take the credit themselves as our teachers. But when we are considered a failure, everyone went away.
But clearly, the role of Joseph and Mary in educating Jesus took a very important role. I will discuss them further in my next writing.
Many wonders where Jesus was between the ages of 12 till the age of 30. We like to think that at those times He was substituting His father on earth, Joseph the carpenter who was believed to have died at a young age, as a carpenter. But it was very likely that in these years he was being trained and educated in such a way as to become a Rabbi.
Yes, so He was a Jewish Rabbi. One who was educated in the Scriptures: in the Torah, the Books of Praises, and the Prophets. Not an unlearned man who was simply anointed by the Holy Spirit, not a layman who did not understand the guidance of the Scriptures and relied solely on the guidance of the spirit. I’m using lowercase in spirit here because often those who walk “by the spirit” without having any deep experience within the Word of God (and refuse to study it) will find themselves being led no longer by the Spirit of God but by a spirit before God. Please read 2 Chronicles 18:18-22.
2 Chronicles 18:20-21, Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.
Yes, so He was a Jewish Rabbi. He was a man considered equal by his fellow Scribes to be entrusted with the Synagogue pulpit and was called with great honor because of his credibility as a teacher of Israel.
We are the ones who often have wrong assumptions about Him. Thinking He was just like us, some lay people, uneducated people, who many times don’t want to study, but eager to be used by the power of the Holy Spirit.
No, He was not just a man, an ordinary man, an easy-going person, just because He likes to sit down to eat with everybody, ordinary people, even with sinners and tax collectors, Luke 5:29. He was a Rabbi, but a humble one. For the Jews, with whom they sat down to eat determined their worth, their identity. For Jesus, who He is was not determined by who sat down to eat with Him!
He was also not ignorant just because He allowed His disciples to eat without washing their hands. Mark 7:5. He simply opposed the unnecessary customs of the Jewish traditions which were put into an equal level to the standard of God’s Word.
So Jesus was also a scribe, a Jewish teacher, a Rav, a Rabbi. He wasn’t just from the Pharisees group. The Pharisees were a group of scribes who came from Judea, Jerusalem, and surrounding areas. So-called the metropolitan area in Jesus’ time, which was the place for the upper class. Jesus was from Nazareth, from up north, from Galilee. Lower community area, fishermen community. The place where the Zealot movement began, the place where the Maccabean revolt against Rome originated. There is a strong recent notion that Jesus was a Rabbi who came from the Hasideans group. A group of individuals claimed to be miracle workers in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, the ancient Jewish prophets. A group of scribes from the Galilee area.
Yes, the Hasideans group is actually closely related to the Pharisees. They were both scribes. But the Pharisees emphasized the importance of rituals and ceremonies, what appeared on the outside. While the Hasideans group emphasizes the issues with the man’s heart: what comes out of it, the importance of serving God sincerely, to love others. The Hasideans group itself was known as miracle workers. There are 2 well-known figures from the Hasideans group, Honi HaMe’agel (Honi, the circle maker) & Hanina ben Dosa.
One of the main characteristics of these Hasideans was their courage to leave the world, to become poor, and to serve God fully. This caused the Pharisees to be more popular in urban, metropolitan, areas of Judea and Jerusalem. Because they liked to enrich themselves and think highly of themselves. The Hasideans were more acceptable in the Galilee area, in Nazareth, among the lower class people.
The teaching of Jesus as Rabbi of Israel seeks to bring back the purity of the Word of God according to the Scriptures. The Lord removed all the customs and traditions of the Jews of His time and emphasized the importance of God’s Word itself above all else. Like when He often healed the sick on the Sabbath. The Lord was not denying the importance of the Sabbath, but He was showing that loving and helping others was not breaking the Sabbath Law only because it was done on the Sabbath day. In Jewish customs and traditions, they were required to keep the Sabbath according to the Word of God. They would not allow working at all that day. Including anything that falls into the category of “work”, such as lifting up or moving things around. Like lifting a sleeping mat, carrying it around, John 5:8-9. All of this was not allowed and would violate the Sabbath according to their (stretched) interpretation of the Law. So practical things like this then become an obstacle to helping sick people according to Jesus. Jesus denied this because He knew that if any of their sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath day, Matthew 12:11, they would also go down into the pit directly and pull the sheep out. They wouldn’t wait until the next day. Shouldn’t it be considered violating the law of the Sabbath? Shouldn’t “going down to the pit to pull the sheep out” falls into the category of work? If this is ok, why then healing the sick, helping fellow humans on the Sabbath considered violating the law? Matthew 12:12.
Jewish practices like this are still common in Christianity today. Often many Pastors consider the church and denomination regulations very important to be observed beyond the Word of God itself. Or many like to see the Christian traditions of a region more importance over loving the neighbor. If we are honest to see further and deeper of why these things are happening, we would often find that the main reason is the politics in the church and denomination. It is the competition and jealousy between Pastors, who should be in power!
When the Lord mentioned destroying the temple, and in three days I will rebuild it, John 2:19, the Lord was not just talking about His death and resurrection, verses 21-22. But He was confronting the values of Pharisees’ customs and traditions at that time which were more concerned with the location and the physical building of worship than the worship itself. The same practice is still happening today in the Christian world, where we often like to define the church as a place of worship, and the location and the physical building itself. We forget that we are the church, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost itself. We get angry when churches are burned but we don’t mind if we destroy our bodies with food or bad habits!
Many times we always see God’s Word through our own eyes, according to our assumptions that are often born because of the background from where we come from, what we have heard and understood before. Especially if our Christian customs and traditions give a very strong influence, not to mention the strong rules of our Pastor which many times represent the church and denomination he is in. We find it difficult to think openly and more often have compartmentalized our own thinking without trying to seek more of what it means to something we think we already understand.
Now that we know Jesus himself was a Rabbi, a Jewish teacher, we should understand that we also must continue to study the Word of God, seeking His Word and dig deep into the truth of the Scriptures. Especially after we have seen how Jesus from a young age had fascinated all the scribes because of His knowledge of God’s Word. This shows that it is very important for us to practice Deuteronomy 6:7, how we should be able to teach the Word of God to our children from a much early age. Not just giving them once a week to Sunday school teachers, we ourselves as parents must be the priests and Bible teachers for them.
But how can we teach them if we don’t want to study the Word of God ourselves? What can we share or teach if we as parents are “empty”? Studying is never too late, especially studying the Word of God. Let’s start studying, we could start with something simple first: reading our Bible again. If we think there’s a lot we don’t understand, that’s a good starting point where we can start digging deeper. Not an excuse to not reading. After all, our (spiritual and mental) weight is determined by what fills our mind and heart, right? Not titles, not possessions, nor our position. They’re all just “our physical wear”.
Yes, God can certainly use us even when we are not educated. But this often means that the use of God in us is also limited in certain ways. We ourselves must continue to be able to improvise ourselves, continue to study. Doesn’t that mean having the ears and hearts of a disciple? Many Pentecostals and Charismatics place too much emphasis on spiritual experience, to the point that they often go astray because of the many misunderstandings of the Word. Yes, it was the lack of understanding of the Word of God. Moreover, because often very dramatic manifestations of the spirit like to be considered the best experience itself. It is not wrong to study, especially when you have come to know now after reading this that our Lord was a Rabbi. A title that was earned not because He was filled with the Holy Spirit, but because He had studied the Scriptures since childhood.
A simple example. If we can only speak a certain language, the knowledge we get when we are diligent in reading is only from that language sources or at least those that have been translated into our language. If we can speak more languages, we can learn from different sources because of our mastery of the other languages. We would have more value because of it. Moreover, our horizons clearly become wider and the opportunities that can be opened will be more widen apart. It’s true, God can make us speak some other languages without studying, with a miracle of course. This is not an impossible thing. But how many of us would experience this? Much more people wouldn’t find this miracle and instead, still, have to pay the price by sitting down to learn the other language just to improve themselves? Don’t console yourself by assuming that Jesus was not an educated person just because He mingled a lot with uneducated people. He was a very educated man, His title as Rabbi had the same level as many titles in the education and the religious world today.
Returning to the rabbinate of Jesus, it is not surprising that the Pharisees and scribes at the time of Jesus felt very betrayed by the Lord. Because they saw Jesus as a Rabbi like themselves but found that Jesus was on the other side which opposed their tradition and interpretation of the Scriptures. They felt very threatened to find in this young rebellious Rabbi gained a greater mass than them. They didn’t like it when they realize that the crowd was now listening to Rabbi Jesus more, compared to those who according to the rank of Rabbi was higher than Rabbi Jesus himself. Worse, Jesus was able to perform miracles while they could not. They were frightened because they knew that the people were beginning to recognize that the LORD God Himself was not with them even though they had the title of Scholar of the Scriptures. Look, doesn’t that sound like what’s happening these days in the Lord’s own Church when He raises the young people?
No wonder if in the end many of these Pharisees and scribes, many of them wanted to eliminate Him. And they succeeded in doing so through the Roman soldiers who crucified Him. That’s the only way to stop Him and to make Him an example to the people that this religious group should not be challenged at all. Jesus was later considered to have given birth to new teaching called the Way, in the first century. In fact, if they were honest, they were the ones who have created a “new teaching” because of the deviations into their Jewish teachings that occurred by the influence of tradition and misinterpretation (which emphasizes external things). So perverted that when Jesus tried to restore the Scriptures, He was considered a traitor. He was considered to give birth to a new sect.
Yes, let’s go back to the purity of God’s Word. Let’s study, search carefully, dig diligently and deeply the truth of the Word of God. Don’t just depend on our traditions and customs as Christians. Don’t get hung up, don’t stop when you hear someone say, oh that’s not the custom here. That’s not how the rule in this church. Don’t let us get caught up in the “Pharisees and Scribes” situation. Jesus in His Rabbinical brought us all back to the purity of the Scriptures, a path that we too must emulate today. Amen.
This writing is dedicated to The Late Dr. Dwight Pryor which through his teaching I have and continue to learn so much about Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi.
I would also like to express my appreciation to Robert Bleakney, Anthony Cheah, and Simon Katimin for their contribution to this writing. May we all know Him better everyday!