Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Gospels’ Portraits of the Genuine Jesus

When I debated Rabbi Mizrachi two years ago, he charged that we Christians weren’t following the Mosaic Law as Jesus commanded, implying that Jesus never taught that His New Covenant would replace the Old. The Rabbi cited the Sermon on the Mount:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

Instead, I’d like to argue that this teaching, along with all of the other things that Jesus taught, argues persuasively that Jesus was cryptically preparing His people, planting seeds that would later bloom, “fulfilling” the Mosaic Covenant, for the New Covenant. In fact, what we find in the Gospel accounts also argues that Jesus’ teaching couldn’t have been the invention of the early church (70-100 AD), but instead represents accurate snapshots of His teachings.

For one thing, Matthew 5 couldn’t have been an invention of the early church. They would have been more explicit about the New Covenant replacing the Old and probably would have attempted to bring Jesus’ words into harmony with the epistles. Instead, Jesus taught that not a single Mosaic Law could be broken. However, He did hint that there might be an expiration date for the Mosaic Covenant. It would last “until everything is accomplished.” However, He is not explicit about this fulfillment – when or how it will occur, and what will be the result when it does occur.

To perceive the profundity of this teaching, we have to see it in the light of His other teachings, namely those regarding His Messiah-ship and Divinity. Rather than going into the specifics about these teachings, I hope it will be enough to state that He was seldom explicit about His identity. Instead, He used cryptic terminology, like “the son of man” (Daniel 7:13-14), especially when in public. Nevertheless, He did acknowledge that He was the Messiah to the Samaritan woman (John 4), His disciples (Matthew 16) and even within the context of His trial, as the Sanhedrin scrambled unsuccessfully produce testimony against Him.

In retrospect, this is exactly what we’d expect to encounter in Jesus’ teachings. His own followers, let alone the populace, were unable to receive or even understand what He was saying. They could only stand little morsels of His light. This is especially true when it came to the Mosaic Covenant, the flagship of Judaism.

The Torah warned that anyone who taught against Mosaic Law had to be executed (Deut. 13). Granted, Jesus wasn’t actually teaching against Mosaic Law, but it certainly would have appeared this way had He stated in his Sermon on the Mount that He was going to do away with the Old Covenant by fulfilling it all through His death. Consistently, He remained cryptic – He had to – in teaching that He would initiate a New Covenant to replace the Old, at least until the very end.

In John 2:19, Jesus states, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." John explains that He was referring to His own body. This interpretation is radical! Jesus associated His body with the place that the Israelites would meet with God and find mercy. Although He didn’t explicitly say that He was replacing the Temple, He was suggesting that it was now becoming redundant.

In the Gospel of Matthew (12:6), He goes even further: “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.” Again, although He wasn’t explicit, He was proclaiming that He was greater than the Temple and what it represented – the Mosaic Covenant!

In other places, He cryptically disqualified the Mosaic Covenant:

"Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.")
(Mark 7:18-19, NIV).

Jesus never explicitly contradicted any of the teachings of the Old Testament, but He was clearly laying down the foundational teachings for its removal. Instead, it was Mark who had been inspired to give his parenthetical interpretation that Jesus was cryptically declaring all foods clean. Israel wasn’t ready to hear this message yet.

It was only in the end of His ministry that Jesus was more explicit about His mission and the New Covenant: “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28; also Mk 14.24; Luke 22:20). Jesus would now substitute Himself for the lamb of the Passover!

Had Jesus been more transparent earlier, He might have been crucified before His appointed time. He had to keep this secret, and even after He revealed it, the impact of this thunderbolt could barely be perceived. As a result, the Apostles continued to worship in the Temple and to distance themselves from Gentiles.

Jesus’ post-resurrection teachings also reveal the same lack of a full-bodied theology of the Cross, something so uncharacteristic of the Epistles and therefore highly uncharacteristic of what the early church might have inserted into the Gospel accounts.

It is interesting to note that His “great commission” differs so notably among the four Gospels. Nevertheless, they all cryptically contain a setting aside of the Mosaic Covenant.

1. Matthew contains the most well known “great commission” teaching:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age"
(Matthew 28:19-20).

Blessing and life had been a matter of obeying Moses. Now it had become a matter of Jesus, who would always be with them, signifying that He had the ability to take care of His people.

2. In Mark’s “great commission,” Jesus simply instructed His disciples to “proclaim the Gospel,” promising salvation to those who believe (Mark 16:15-16). Once again, Moses isn’t in the picture, just Jesus. Also, there is no explicit mention of how this Gospel had been accomplished on the Cross.

3. In Luke’s “great commission,” the risen Messiah commands that “forgiveness should be proclaimed in His name” (Luke 24:46-47). However, once again, He doesn’t mention the Cross, but the Laws of Moses are nowhere to be seen. The blessedness that had always been conferred through the Mosaic Covenant would now come through Jesus.

4. John’s Gospel hardly contains Jesus’ “great commission,” but the same limited elements are nevertheless present – forgiveness of sins (20:23), the blessedness of believing in Him (20:29), and discipleship (21:19), but without any mention of the Mosaic Law.

The differences we find among the Gospel accounts shouldn’t concern us. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples over a 40 day period, and so it would suspicious if the four Gospels each included the exact same speeches. It would smack of early-church collusion to iron out the rough edges and to bring them into a superficial harmony with the epistles. However, we find no such attempts. This make the Gospels appear to be genuine, eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ very words. We also find no attempts to place into Jesus’ mouth the more a detailed presentation of the Cross that we find in the Epistles.

We can also observe the same opaqueness in His teachings regarding His atonement. We find His most explicit teaching about His death for the sins of the world in the verse cited above. The other verses are as cloudy as His teachings regarding the New Covenant. Here are some of the most explicit:

1. “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). (However, this says nothing about His death and taking the sins of the world upon Himself.)

2. “--and I lay down my life for the sheep…The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again” (John 10:15-17). (Once again, there is no mention of how and what will be accomplished.)

I’d like to now draw some conclusions:

1. These teachings of Jesus couldn’t possibly represent teachings that the early church created and placed in Jesus’ mouth. They would have been more explicit about Jesus’ mission and would probably have lined Jesus’ words up with Paul’s. Paul had claimed that we are no longer under the Law and that the Law kills. On the surface, many of Jesus’ teachings seem to contradict the epistles, perhaps to the discomfort of the early church, who would have gone to great limits to reconcile these “contradictions” had they not been convinced that the Gospels contained the very teachings of Jesus. Besides this, His teachings reflect an intimate understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.

2. If the Gospel teachings of Jesus do not represent the creative efforts of the early church, we are looking upon Our Lord’s authentic teachings, words that our Apostles preserved at the cost of their own blood.

3. We are also looking at a staggering proof for the authenticity of the Gospels. May He be forever praised!

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