Instead of trying to fit the round peg of Messiah into the square hole of Paul, wouldn’t it be better if we asked, “Are Paul’s ideas true to what Yeshua had to say?” That is, instead of re-reading Yeshua’s messages based on what people think Paul meant, what if we sought to understand Yeshua first and then compared Paul? Yeshua’s message, after all, is the standard and Paul’s must measure up. Too many think it is the other way around.
Brilliantly selects three texts in Luke as representative of what the early believers got out of Yeshua’s message. They are Mary’s psalm (called the Magnificat traditionally, Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah’s oracle (called the Benedictus, 1:67-79), and John the Baptist’s preaching (3:1-8). We have in these three texts the fruit of the teaching of the early believers refracted through the pen of Luke. These are early traditions with concentrated interpretive power to clear away misunderstanding about what Yeshua stood for and came to do.
Mary and Zechariah see Yeshua as the promised ultimate king who will bring the time of God’s reign. Mary’s song celebrates the way God lifts up the weak and insignificant. It is not that people triumph, but God prevails on their behalf. Zechariah’s song focuses on the strength of this person, Yeshua, who rescues with God’s might in alignment with the commission given to Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, their understanding (and that of Luke and other late first century believers) was very Yeshua-centered, making much of God’s initiative, not the ability of people to attain to something or bring about the kingdom.
What about John the Baptist? Careful examination of his words shows he did not yet understand Yeshua to be the ultimate king. But he spoke of one “more powerful than I” whose baptism would be with fire and Spirit rather than water. Later in the Gospel, John will wonder more specifically who Yeshua is (7:18-23). Yeshua will explain, in Jewish language rich with Hebrew Bible allusions, that he is the bringer of a new order in which lepers are healed and those demonically imprisoned are set free. Again, the meaning of Yeshua’s teaching and self-awareness is that a God-centered transformation is coming, one that will change the land and the people.
In our first look at what Yeshua is all about we can already see it is something God is doing. And Yeshua is the bringer of the changes. It is God-centered and messianic. It is not human-centered and triumphalist. God and Messiah act first and people in bondage are released while the order that exists on earth is turned upside down.
What will happen when we turn to the words of Yeshua, the ones sometimes printed in red in Bibles? Will we find something here to which we can hold Paul accountable? Before examining a sample of Yeshua’s words, I offer a few observations.
The problem many people have in understanding what Yeshua said is that they are looking for a “plan of salvation.” Many have been taught to read Paul this way and they expect it to be the organizing principle of Yeshua’s message too. They want Yeshua to tell individuals what they must do, what is the minimum, what will bring personal salvation. They are thinking in terms of conditions and contracts, meeting requirements to achieve personal happiness in the afterlife. They desire clear-cut answers and simple definitions. So, for example, “saved” should mean “personal attainment to a happy afterlife.” And Yeshua’s warnings must surely be about people excluded from this happy afterlife (and consigned to a dreadful one instead). Yeshua should be focused on who is personally in or out.
If you look for these things, you might be able to imagine them in some places. You will really be finding things that are not there. Yeshua is not interested in minimum requirements. He advocates extreme commitment and a gigantic vision of the reign of God taking over the earth. His words are often about his nation, his generation, and events that will soon happen in history. He is generally not interested in teaching about final destinies (how and where people end up ultimately after death). Instead, much of what he says appears to be offering his generation the reign of God now if they, as a whole people, will believe and act accordingly. Yeshua knows this will not happen, but there seems to be an important role in Messiah offering the kingdom. Perhaps it is to demonstrate that people will not be ready in any generation, but God will act unilaterally. Yeshua’s judgment talk in most cases is about national disaster coming in history, not an afterlife of unending punishment.
Confusion between Yeshua’s largely national message and reader obsession with personal salvation explains a great deal about why people don’t get Yeshua.
To be clear, it is not that Yeshua never said anything to or about individuals. He did not, however, address in a clear manner personal salvation, minimum requirements, or specific advice about final destinies. He offered individual hope and also warnings, but there were often about the exacting demands of discipleship rather than the lowest bar for acceptance by God in the afterlife.
One way to get a handle on Yeshua’s message is to evaluate some sampling of his sayings selected in an impartial manner. I will do that by going over an incomplete (but rigorously representative) inventory of his teachings from the Gospel of Mark. The sayings seemed to fall into six broad categories. The reader will have to decide if I have fairly captured the essence of it all. They are: national warnings, national hope, individual warnings, individual hope, discipleship demands, and claims by Yeshua about his own identity. When it comes to this final category, Yeshua’s self-claims, and wisely says that Yeshua did proclaim the Gospel when he proclaimed himself.
The national warnings come in a variety of packages. Yeshua sent out his disciples to declare in the towns of the land that the reign of God has (in some sense) arrived. If they would not listen, Yeshua told them to visibly shake sandal dust at them which would serve as heavenly testimony against them (Mark 6:11). Israel had teachers who were taken by Yeshua as representatives of the nation’s destiny. Where the teachers led the people, so they would go. He excoriated these teachers, though, for making divine words null with convoluted interpretation (7:6-13). He said his generation would not see heavenly signs to make faith easier (8:12). His name for his contemporaries was “this unbelieving generation” (9:19). Very pointedly he warned that the vineyard owner (God) would come and destroy the vine-growers (the leaders and institutions, 12:9). Of the central symbol of his nation’s connection with God, the temple in Jerusalem, Yeshua said “not one stone will be left upon another” (13:2). Yeshua’s fire and judgment, thus, is generally about events to come in history and not an afterlife destination of punishment.
There is also national hope in Yeshua’s words. At least some of the seed Yeshua was sowing could fall on good soil (4:20). Since the seed in his parable was intended to evoke Isaiah 6:13, the stump of Israel’s tree and the end of Israel’s exile, this meant the possibility that God’s reign could take hold soon. Yeshua spoke of seed growing mysteriously, while farmers slept, with God alone bringing the growth (4:26-29). In other words, God alone would bring Israel’s restoration and redemption. Yeshua once told a teacher, “You are not far from the kingdom” (12:34). Yeshua’s offer was in some sense a real one and Israel could have grasped it, but Yeshua knew they would not. There is something about human beings that causes us to miss God when he shows up. In any case, none of this was about personal salvation or damnation, but the changing of the times to become the era of God’s reign.
Yeshua’s warnings were sometimes directed at individuals. He said people were defiled by inner forces which would proceed out of them and result in evil behavior (7:20-23). This is tantamount to saying that humans are not able to heal their own sin-sick souls. He spoke to individuals about the danger of divine punishment, of millstones about the neck, of being cast into hell, and of preferring amputation to facing such a judgment (9:42-48). He believed in punishment after death for some but gave no clear parameters for avoiding it (amputation?). Concerning an individual’s place in the nearing reign of God, Yeshua said those who did not receive it like a child would be denied entry (10:15). The wealthy would especially find it hard to enter (10:23). Once again, Yeshua gave no clear parameters for an actual assignment to life in the coming earthly paradise. His warnings have more of a vague wisdom emphasis to them. There is much assumed about heaven and hell that should not be read into Yeshua’s words.
He also offered hope to individuals. “Son, your sins are forgiven,” he said to a paralytic (2:5). Yeshua came, in fact, to call sinners as disciples (2:17). “Faith,” he told the woman with bleeding, “has made you well” (5:34). He demonstrated that individuals could receive God’s gifts by believing. All things are possible for one who believes because nothing is impossible for God (5:36; 9:23). The power is God’s and trust is simply a way of receiving. Those who do as little as give a cup of water will not lose their reward, perhaps meaning in the life to come (9:41). All who forsake things for God will obtain reward, especially those who make themselves least (10:29-31). And during distressing days and earthly judgments, the ones who have enduring faith until the end will be saved (13:13). This need not be read as a condition (“God will save you at the end if you keep believing”) but as hope for those in the middle of trials (“keep believing because you know the end is salvation”). None of these sayings gives clear parameters about minimum requirements for “getting in.” They do, however, indicate that faith is what can make us well.
Rather than minimums, Yeshua calls people to extremes. “If anyone wishes to come after me” is his invitation (8:34-38). Discipleship is not about “getting in” but giving one’s life in imitation of Yeshua and for the love of people and God. It is about serving all and being the least (9:35). It means for some letting go of possessions out of preference for heavenly treasure (10:21). Those who forgive trespasses will find that the Father forgives theirs (11:25). And disciples are to be on perpetual alert because at an unexpected time the Master may come and have high expectations (13:35). These demands have nothing to do with minimums and everything to do with worship and service of an infinitely lovely God.
Most important in Yeshua’s teachings are his self-claims. He has authority to forgive sins (2:10). “Do you not understand?” he asks his obtuse disciples (8:21). He wants them to see that he is more than he appears. Those who receive Yeshua with friendliness are as those who receive God himself, the One who sent him (9:37). Yeshua is the Son of Man and offers his life as a ransom for the man, a rescue for people’s lives and destinies (10:45). His blood becomes the meaning of a Passover cup and it signifies a covenant (14:24). He will be seen sitting at God’s right hand and returning with the clouds (14:62). The positive force of Yeshua’s message is, “I am the King you are looking for, the bringer of the new creation, the one sent by God to rescue you and defeat evil.”
How, then, did Paul and other apostles derive from this a plan of salvation and a method of changing people’s hearts? What we might expect is that they would continue Yeshua’s teaching, bringing it up to date once the things Yeshua alluded to did happen. The death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and promise to return all came as Yeshua said, along with appearances of Yeshua from heaven with divine glory. We should expect the apostle’s message and Paul’s to be God-centered through Messiah’s action and identity, and to instruct people that faith is receiving what God alone does for us.