There Is a Way to Know Jesus Better
Growing up in a Christian home, I first encountered the Sermon on the Mount very early. I was about six years old. It was 1991.
I was sitting on my bed in a little single-story house in Winton, California. I had taken my blue Psalty-the-Psalter-themed hardcover NIV Bible out of its candy-red polyester McGee-and-Me-themed case. I opened it to the Gospel of Matthew because most of the Old Testament is super boring to a six-year-old Christian. After skipping the genealogies, I quickly encountered the Beatitudes, where I choked on the sentence, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
My dad was an old-school charismatic and member of the Assemblies of God, and I had been raised in the same vein, so I was a little confused about what it might mean to be “poor in spirit.” This phrase didn’t resonate at all in my little Pentecostal ears. If anything, I wanted as much Holy Spirit as I could possibly get. The last thing I wanted to be was “poor in spirit.” I knew I was missing something, so I found my dad and asked him what this verse meant.
“I’m not sure,” he said. (To this day, I appreciate people who don’t pretend to know something they don’t.)
The next time I had a chance to talk to Pastor Keil at our church, Atwater Assemblies of God, I asked him what it meant to be poor in spirit.
“It’s about wanting more of the Spirit. You’re blessed if you realize you don’t have what you need because then you have the right attitude. These are the Be-Attitudes. If you have the right attitude, you can ask God for more of the Spirit because you know you don’t have enough.”
So, the poor in spirit are blessed because they realize their own spiritual poverty. But by implication, wouldn’t the rich in spirit be even more blessed? Today, the voice of Chaim Topol’s Tevye arises in my auditory cortex: “I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.” Surely having more Holy Spirit is better than not having enough, even if you realize your predicament!
Curiouser and Curiouser
When I got older, I found an even more perplexing verse in the Sermon on the Mount. It threatened to shred my theology like a cheese grater: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”
If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’ve probably already figured out that the more you know about Christian theology, the more this verse bothers you. I took systematic theology in high school, as an undergrad, and again in seminary, and let me tell you, every time I encountered it, this verse stuck like a bone in my throat.
Christian theology depends on the abolition of the Old Testament Law. We don’t call it “the abolition of the Old Testament Law” because of this Bible verse where Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the Old Testament Law. But we—I mean, traditional Christians—generally believe no one has to obey the Old Testament Law anymore, and the math is pretty easy to do here. Jesus seemed to understand that he would be misunderstood, so he told us exactly what he didn’t mean—and we ignored him.
Why did we do that?
Because the alternative wasn’t available to us. We simply didn’t have the tools to understand what a rabbi from Nazareth was saying two thousand years ago on a hill overlooking Lake Galilee. He was speaking a different language. He was living in a different time. He was immersed in a different culture. He was talking to people with whom we have so little in common. Bridging these gaps is a non-trivial, multidisciplinary exercise encompassing archaeology, the comparison of numerous ancient texts, a thorough survey of first-century Jewish thought and practice, and a burning desire to connect with the heart of our Master. We might have had the last one, but most of us didn’t have access to the rest—the archaeological findings, the academic articles, the historical context. The information is out there, but it’s written in obtuse academic language and hidden behind paywalls. Even if you know where to look, it’s not cheap or easy to find.
First Fruits of Zion has spent three decades digging through centuries of research into first-century Judaism. From Reimarus to Wrede, from Emden to Boteach, we have mined the best of New Testament scholarship from observant Jews to seminarians and professors in the most prominent Christian and secular universities. We have uncovered a startling consensus—that Jesus of Nazareth was a rabbi, a first-century teacher of Torah, a practicing Jew through and through. We have discovered that the teachings of this first-century rabbi make sense only when they are seen in the context of a plethora of similarly-worded discourses, homilies, sermons, and arguments—all of which are part of the tapestry of first-century Judaism and all of which are available to us today if we take the time and effort to search them out.
We have spent untold hours, days, and years crafting a commentary on the Gospels that places Jesus’ teachings into this ancient context. It’s called Jesus, My Rabbi, and we’ve released it through Torah Club, our network of small-group Bible studies. Disciples all over the world have already tasted the sweetness of Jesus’ teachings by hearing them through ancient ears.
Thousands of people have been through this program and seen the teachings of Jesus in their original context for the first time. Their testimonials reveal that the result of studying through Jesus, My Rabbi hasn’t just been an increase in knowledge. Their spiritual lives are being revitalized as the words of Rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth cut straight to the heart of what it means to be called to repentance and righteousness.
There is perhaps a no more powerfully condensed summary of Jesus’ teachings than the Sermon on the Mount. Ideally, every follower of Jesus would have complete command over the content of this revolutionary discourse. As disciples, we cannot afford to misunderstand these three chapters of Matthew’s gospel. We believe this so strongly that our team has decided to make our commentary on the Sermon on the Mount available free, forever, as a sample of Torah Club to anyone interested.
Any disciple of Jesus can now encounter the most powerfully condensed summary of his teachings that can be found anywhere in Scripture without having to guess at his meaning. With Jesus, My Rabbi, the language of the Sermon on the Mount becomes easy to understand because it is portrayed in the light of centuries of Jewish tradition—a tradition with which the teachings of the Rabbi from Nazareth find surprising harmony.
Easy to Understand
Consider the enigmatic verse in which Jesus states that he came not to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it. What does this mean? Do the terms “abolish” and “fulfill” have some significance that isn’t obvious to us today? The answer is “yes,” and Jesus, My Rabbi makes it clear:
Rabbinic literature reveals hundreds of parallels in which the term “fulfill the Torah” refers expressly to “obeying the Torah” or demonstrating how the Torah is to be properly obeyed. For example, in the Sayings of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), one adage says, “Whoever fulfills the Torah in poverty, will fulfill it later on in wealth; and whoever abolishes the Torah in wealth, will abolish it later in poverty.”
The word “fulfill” doesn’t mean that Jesus kept the Torah so we don’t have to. It means that Jesus kept the Torah to show us how it’s done—to show us God’s heart and the intention behind the commandments of the Old Testament. His teachings don’t replace the Torah; they explain the Torah.
This is just one verse—imagine seeing the entire Sermon on the Mount in such transpicuous clarity!
Before now, this enormous body of research was available only through a paid membership to Torah Club. However, anyone can now freely access our study of the Sermon on the Mount and hear the message of our Master in its original first-century Jewish context.
Perhaps nowhere in the Bible do we find such a complete idea of what it means to be a follower of Jesus as there is in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, so much of what Jesus said on that hill seems enigmatic or clashes with our preconceived theological ideas. It shouldn’t be that hard—Jesus wasn’t teaching educated seminarians or yeshiva students! His disciples were regular folks, many of them fishermen! But their shared cultural context—a context we are so far from—made communication easy; only across the centuries has it become difficult to access the simple truths Jesus handed down.
No disciple of Jesus is complete without an understanding of the Master’s teaching. Our spiritual lives can’t thrive if we haven’t built our houses on the solid bedrock of Jesus’ careful instruction. Don’t let your spiritual life stagnate for lack of knowledge. Let it flourish. With this free commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, you can experience for yourself what thousands of others have already experienced: the transformative power of the authentic, first-century gospel message of Jesus.
First Fruits of Zion