Jul '11 | Blossom 44
(1) The state of the Jewish society at the time of Jesus is the subject of our study in this issue, and we believe that we can learn many important lessons from such a study. Jesus was born and raised in an Israel which was under the control of mighty Rome, a gentile empire. Believing themselves to be the chosen of God, the Jews considered it a humiliation to be under the control of a heathen empire and struggled to accept it. Though the Roman Empire allowed freedom of religious worship, it restricted the life of the Jewish people in many ways. For example, even though it was the responsibility of the Jewish courts to adjudicate Jewish cases, they were barred from administering death penalty. That’s the reason why the Jews who wished to murder Jesus were impelled to produce him before the Roman official Pontius Pilate. It was natural therefore for the Jews to hate this kind of control exerted over them by the Roman Empire. As a result, many believed that the Messiah referred to in the Old Testament prophecies was to come to empower them against Roman Occupation. Frustrations due to many restrictions along with the burden of taxes placed on them by the Roman Empire encouraged many Jews to hope in their liberation through a saviour who they believed would commandeer an army to defeat the Roman Empire in a decisive war. And there are many scriptural prophecies which seemingly support such beliefs (for example See Micah 5:1-4, See Scripture Study – Blossom17: June11,Paras 08,09,10,11). Unfortunately, what they were unaware of was that many such prophecies were about the second coming of the Messiah when he would come as a conqueror.
(2) In such an environment, around the time period of the first coming of Christ, there existed a Jewish Group called the Zealots, a group that believed and practised revolutionary ideologies. They believed that they can overthrow the Roman Empire through rebellion. Many among them expected the Messiah to rise and ally with them in this rebellion. Infact, there was a Zealot even among the disciples of Jesus Christ (Luke 6:15). Furthermore, there was a radical group called the Sicarii within the Zealots. Historians refer to the Sicarii as the first identifiable terrorist group in the history of the world. Like the terrorist organizations of today, the Sicarii too involved itself in activities of terrorism. They would secret small swords on their body, and attack Roman officials and supporters of the Roman government. It is assumed by some that Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus could have belonged to such an organization. His name can be split thus – Judah + Iscariot, which gives a clue. In the Latin language slang of that time, Iscariot is said to have referred to someone belonging to the Sicarii group. Some reason that Judas, a former member of the Sicarii, betrayed Jesus in disappointment since the latter showed no inclination towards allying with the Sicarii faction of the Zealots to fight and defeat the Roman government in an uprising. Nevertheless, what is obvious is that the Zealots were ignorant that God’s plan was to sacrifice the Messiah to redeem the world.
(3) Radically different from the Zealots were the Sadducees of the Jewish society. The Sadducees were wealthy, educated and occupied the highest strata of their day’s Jewish society. They were the ones who took the responsibility of the priestly duties in the temple of Jerusalem. They were also officials at Sanhedrin, the Jewish courts. Moreover, they held high ranking positions in the government such as that of an official collecting temple taxes. They were significantly different from the Zealots for they believed in safeguarding their wealth, status and honour by cooperating with the powerful Roman government. This influenced them to actively assist in the administration of the Roman government. Not only did they blindly give immense significance to the traditions of the temple of Jerusalem, and those of the Law, but they also had no belief or interest in spiritual matters such as that of the resurrection (Acts 23:6). They were also absolutely unaware of God’s plan to redeem the world through the sacrifice of his Messiah. Moreover, we can say that since, instead of being against the Roman Empire, they worked along with it to protect their wealth and status; they were unenthusiastic in the coming of Zealot’s version of a Messiah who would overthrow the Roman Empire. On the whole, the Sadducees saw religion as little more than a social identity and refused to give importance to spiritual matters. They were simply not interested in matters such as the plan of God. They were more concerned about the affairs of their daily life. Consequently, they understood the futility of standing against the Roman Empire knowing that it would only destroy them. Instead of true devotion, they performed their duties in a ritualistic manner and sometimes with selfish motives. They hated Jesus because he preached against their pursuit of meaningless traditions. They were also concerned that Jesus’ spiritual message about the ‘world to come’ would hurt their status in their present society and raise his popularity.
(4) The Pharisees were another group that were an important part of the Jewish society of that time. Even among the Pharisees (like the Sadducees), there were some who served as priests, and some who worked at the Sanhedrin. Many were teachers of the Law. Unlike the Sadducees, they did not wish to work alongside the Roman government but neither did they rebel like the Zealots. Instead, they quietly preached strict adherence to the Law. Unlike the Sadducees, they didn’t give exclusive importance to the temple at Jerusalem. On the contrary they encouraged people to uphold the traditions of the Law wherever they lived. The Pharisees enjoyed more support than the Sadducees among the Jewish people. They preferred to project themselves as different from the Sadducees in their spirituality. It was the Pharisees who preached in public and in rural areas. They believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:6). But their obedience to the Law was superficial, for they didn’t understand that God’s purpose for seeking obedience to the Law was to cultivate pure love in the hearts (Matthew 23:23-26, 1 Timothy 1:5). Moreover, they preferred in giving more importance to the Commentaries on the Law given by wise Jewish men of the former times than to the Law itself. These commentaries were called the Oral Torah, and were orally transmitted from the time of Moses (In fact, what is called the Talmud now is the collection of these orally given traditional teachings, composed and written around 200 A.D.). Interestingly, the Sadducees didn’t give importance to the so called Oral Torah. To illustrate, how Oral Torah’s teachings differed from that of the Bible, let us see the example of honoring one’s parents. We know that the Bible instructs us to honour our parents, but encouraged by the teachings of the Oral Torah, the Pharisees would preach to give as an offering to God what one would need to spend on their parents. This they said would free one from responsibility towards his or her parents. We see in the Bible that Jesus rebuked such teachings based on human wisdom and tradition (Matthew 15:3-5). Moreover, the Pharisees were also ignorant of God’s plan of redemption of mankind through the sacrifice of the Messiah. Ironically, they were so proud of upholding the Law superficially that it gave them the impression of being righteous. The Pharisees hated Jesus for exposing their hypocrisy of blindly guiding the people through mere traditional teachings. Even though they believed in the Messiah, they could not accept Jesus as the Messiah for they lacked an understanding of the Law, and they were ignorant of the plan of God. Biblical accounts show that they too pushed to crucify Christ along with the Sadducees.
(5) Finally, the group that lived very differently from others in the Jewish society of the time of Jesus was the Essenes. History records them as a group that mostly lived in the wilderness or caves, renouncing a normal life within the Jewish community. Their choice to live separately, away or in seclusion was because they held that the Sadducees and the other heads of the Jewish society of that time were responsible for greatly adulterating the Jewish religion. Even among the Essenes group, many lived a further secluded life. They remained single, living without any money or possessions, or without desiring much worldly comforts. In fact, it was one such Essenes group that had preserved ancient copies of the Old Testament in caves near the Dead Sea which was discovered in 1946 AD. Sadly, even the Essenes were unaware of the plan of God to sacrifice the Messiah to redeem the world.
(6) Thus, we see that at the time of Jesus’ birth, none of the prominent groups of the Jewish society had any clear idea about the Messiah. Their ignorance of God’s plan was the reason why the then Jewish society crucified Jesus on the cross. Does this mean that none was aware of the plan of God at the time of Jesus’ birth? No! There existed another group at the time of Jesus’ birth whose existence remains unrecorded in the annals of history. They preferred not to flaunt their existence, instead chose to quietly follow God. They knew that their work was neither to rebel against the Roman Empire nor to join it. More importantly, they knew the truth about God’s plan of sacrificing the Messiah to redeem the world. Yes, even though the period of Jesus’ birth found the Sadducees and the Pharisees of the Jewish society submerged in hypocritical practices – amidst them lived Jews who clearly understood the plan of God well before Christ or even John the Baptist began their ministries. One such clear illustration is recorded in the New Testament itself.
(7) Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, circumcised their child Jesus on the eighth day (Luke 2:21). The Old Testament informs us that a woman who gives birth to a child remains unclean for seven days (Leviticus 12:2), and so the male child could only be circumcised on the eighth day. The woman was required to wait for another 33 days to be completely clean (Leviticus 12:4). Only after this the woman could offer sacrifices at the tabernacle to cleanse herself of her uncleanness (Leviticus 12:6,7). Generally, the sacrifice involved a lamb (Leviticus 12:6). However, the Law instructs the poor to sacrifice a pair of wild pigeons or a pair of young doves instead of a lamb (Leviticus 12:8). Moreover, it was mandatory in Israel to consecrate the first born male, whether of a human or of an animal, to God (Exodus 13:2, Numbers 18:15). As a result, as instructed by the Law, the Israelites offered 5 shekels as an offering to redeem their own first-borns, and those of their animals (Numbers 18:16). To fulfil these obligations, the parents of Jesus took him to Jerusalem (Luke 2: 22-24). It is obvious that the parents of Jesus were poor for they offered a pair of doves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24). To do this, the parents of Jesus took him to Jerusalem, where there was a man called Simon. He was not of the Zealot sect, nor was he of the Sadducees. He was neither of the Pharisees nor was he of the Essenes who lived a renounced life in the wilderness. Instead, the Bible informs us that he was righteous and filled with devotion for God, waiting for the consolation of the Messiah, and that the Holy Spirit was upon him (Luke 2:25). Indeed, he was a true Jew. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that as a reward for his faith and his patience, he would not die without first seeing God’s Messiah with his own eyes (Luke 2:26). That promise was fulfilled when the parents of Jesus brought him to Jerusalem, and at the same time the Holy Spirit led Simon to the temple (Luke 2:27). Simon through the guidance of the Holy Spirit recognized Jesus as the Messiah, took him in his hands, praised God for fulfilling his promise of seeing the Messiah, and announced that he was now ready to die in peace (Luke 2:28,29). The eagerness and faith of Simon is obvious as he looked forward to seeing the Messiah. But, was this Simon aware of the plan of God regarding his Messiah? Or like the Zealots, Sadducees, Pharisees or the Essenes, was he totally ignorant? Surprisingly, long before John or Jesus began their ministry, Simon knew of God’s plan that the Sadducees or the Pharisees knew nothing about. In fact, Simon was very knowledgeable on matters that the apostles themselves took some time to understand. Simon lucidly describes in the following verses, the plan of God regarding the Messiah who was at present just a little child in his hands – ‘For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel’ (Luke 2:30-32). Let us discuss in some detail about what Simon says.
(8) A light for revelation to the Gentiles –We know that during the time of Jesus, the Jews hated the gentile Roman Empire that restrained their freedom. In such a situation, amazingly Simon quite accurately extols how Jesus the Messiah would be a light of revelation to the Gentiles. Isn’t it surprising? It was only because most Jews of that time did not read the Old Testament with care, they did not know this. Indeed the Old Testament explicitly details how the Messiah would be a light of revelation to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6). Simon, who knew the truth, understood the role Jesus was to play as the one who was to bring the light of truth not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.
(9) The glory of your people Israel - Simon knew that, even though the Messiah was to take the truth to the Gentiles, the Israelites were not going to be abandoned because of this. Instead they will finally be glorified because of the works of the Messiah. Yes, after they undergo their punishment, the very Jews who refused Jesus will not be deserted by God. They will be received back into the fold again. In the battle of Armageddon, the Messiah will destroy the countries that will come up against Israel (Micah 5:1-4, See Scripture Study - Blossom17:June11,Paras 08,09,10,11). Not only will the Kingdom of God be established in the city of Jerusalem soon after, but the believers of the Old Testament period will be the God appointed governors on earth. The Israel that will be established by the Old Testament faithful will be acts as the guide to the entire world (See Scripture Study – Blossom18:July11, Paras 02, 03). It is thus certain that these will bring about a lot of glory to Israel.
(10) Your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations – The meaning of salvation is deliverance. Here in the sight of all nations means that all people will be able to see the mechanism of salvation i.e. they will realise how it was achieved. This is a prophecy. We know that God prepared the salvation of the world through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is true that to this day, people of this world aren’t aware of the reason for this sacrifice. But, pretty soon, as we know, the world will realize/see the truth that the world’s salvation is through the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus. And this is what Simon prophesies here. This is also something which comes out clearly in the prophecies of the Old Testament itself (See Psalm 98:3, Isaiah 52:10). We realize that Simon was well aware of the truth that the salvation gained through the Messiah will reach everyone in the end.
(11) In fact, we know that until then none of Simon’s utterances had been fulfilled. Jesus had not yet taken the light to the Gentiles, nor had he become the glory of Israel. All people had not yet seen the working of God’s plan of redemption through the sacrifice of the Messiah Jesus. The moment Simon saw baby Jesus, he was prophetically certain of these events taking place in the future. Being aware of the arrangement of God, and seeing the Messiah which was the baby Jesus, he saw as a vision all that the child was to accomplish as Messiah Jesus. Indeed, when Simon saw baby Jesus, he saw a revelation of the fulfilment of God’s plan. His knowledge of the Bible amazes us. Let us continue to read. Simon says this to Mary –: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34-35). What Simon had foretold Mary in these verses was indeed fulfilled! Jesus exposed many of the hypocritical thoughts in the hearts of the Sadducees and Pharisees. Many Jews, including the Sadducees and Pharisees assumed they were holy, but unfortunately they stumbled and fell because of their refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah. At the same time, many who were considered the lowest in the Jewish social strata, and considered sinners, rose high, for they accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Even today, just as Simon foretold, the Jews refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah and speak against him. Moreover, since Simon knew that Jesus was to die on the cross after much tribulation, and was aware that saying that explicitly would hurt Mary, he prophesies that her soul would hurt as though a sword had cut her on seeing the death of her son. All these prove to us that Simon was knowledgeable regarding the plan of God. But these things could have been known to the other Jews too if they had taken the effort to read the Old Testament with care. All these had been foretold in the Old Testament (See Isaiah 8:14,15 & 53). What we know from all this is that, during the time of Christ, and also even before the time of Christ, there was a group among the Jews who understood the essence of the Law and therefore understood the plan of God. History does not record anything about this group. But, their names are written in the book of God’s memory (See Malachi 3:16,17 and Scripture Study – Blossom04:May10, Para 11). It is certain that their history and faith will be brought to light in the Kingdom of God. We are able to learn great lessons from the Jewish society of the time of Jesus. Let us look into them now.
(12) Even in our times there are many rebellious organizations like the Zealots. Worldly governments and financial institutions are knee deep in corruption. Because of the greed of a few, today’s world is facing an economic depression that is causing much misery to the people. Enraged by this, people of even many Developed European countries such as England, Italy, Greece have been indulging in riots which were unthinkable a few years ago. Even in India many have been revolting in large numbers against corruption. Many Christian denominations say that it is good to rebel for the transformation of society. There are many who wrongly declare that Christ would support such rebels for he himself was a revolutionary who fought against his own society. Nothing can be farther from the truth. We know that all worldly governments and governing organizations are corrupt. However, it is not necessary nor is our call to revolt. That is not our work. No revolt can change the world’s governing powers. That’s because, the government that would come after the revolt would also be corrupt. All revolutions in history, be it the French revolution or the Russian revolution are an example to this. We know that it will be possible to establish good governance only in God’s Kingdom. Therefore, until then we need to stay quiet. We need to pay our taxes, and as Paul says offer a small prayer for those governing and calmly do the gospel work for which we have been called (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Only if a government forbids us from doing the Gospel work or asks us to betray our conscience in any way, need we disobey it, just like the apostles refused to stop preaching Christ despite Roman opposition. Otherwise, we should not indulge in worldly, transient and ultimately meaningless revolutions.
(13) Even in this period of ours, there are those who are like the Sadducees of those times. Just like the self-serving Sadducees joined hands with the Roman government, the Catholic Church and the other powerful traditional churches collaborate with worldly governments and other worldly organizations. They aren’t conscious of the fact that it is wrong. Many of today’s traditional Christian Bible Seminaries teach contrary to biblical truths and act very similar to the Sadducees by sharing their utter lack of zeal in spiritual life. Many churches exist merely as a source of occupation for the clergy. Christianity for them is simply a social recognition and identity. Unlike them, we need to consciously avoid being this day’s Sadducees. Even though there is no need to revolt against the government, we should not associate our church with any kind of worldly organization even if it would benefit us in any way. We are to be a people who wait for the Kingdom of Christ. Affiliating with any form of worldly government is akin to adultery with the world. Moreover, we need to have spiritual fervor and not merely a sense of tradition. Furthermore, instead of denying important spiritual truths such as the Creation, the resurrection, we should be proactive as the ones upholding these very doctrines. Sometimes, it is possible that due to an increase in scientific knowledge, questions may arise regarding some biblical truths like Creation. Nevertheless, since it was God who permitted this increase in knowledge during the end times, He Himself will provide us with the answers that will in turn lead to further increase in our knowledge of the Bible. We have explored and experienced this first hand in an earlier issue of Grace (See Grace – Blossom33:September10, Paras 06,07).
(14) In these modern times too, there are people who live like the Pharisees. Growth in the number of Pentecostal churches and the other independent Christian groups that often follow a single charismatic leader are evidence to the attraction to the hypocritical spiritual doctrines and the delusive holiness that was once preached and practised by the Pharisees of Jesus’ times. Outwardly these churches appear to be spiritual and real. They claim being anointed of the Holy Spirit and being different from the traditional Christian churches. It is true that they don’t have many dealings with the government, and neither do they indulge in revolts. Unfortunately, having understood the consecrated life of the believer wrongly, they are representatives of a false spirituality that seeks the blessings of this world and seeks to follow Christ for such earthly reasons. They are very much blind about the Plan of God. Even though they don’t have direct contact with the governments, just as the Pharisees approached the Romans to crucify Christ, these don’t hesitate to approach the government for winning selfish favors. Similarly, they don’t hesitate to have contacts with other organizations that would prove to be a good earthly investment. We should avoid being one of them.
(15) Finally, in these times too, there live people just like the Essenes of the Jewish society of Jesus’ time who lead a life of renunciation. There are groups within certain Christian denominations that choose to live a solitary life. Surprising, many among the true Christians too, knowing the impossibility of transforming the world and also aware of the immediacy of the end of the present world, decide to lead quiet lives avoiding the world, but maintaining fellowship only with the brethren, awaiting the Kingdom of God. That is plain wrong. Matthew 28:19,20 is our calling. Therefore, it is not possible to win this race simply by practising self-control or character building in isolation. Preaching the Gospel is one of the Christian foundational doctrines and that is why the Bible says that woe to those who don’t practise it (1 Corinthians 9:16, See Grace – Blossm43:June11, Para 05.). Jesus asks us to go out into this deceptive world, and preach the word of God with the shrewdness of a snake, and with an innocence of a dove. He doesn’t advise us to practise renunciation. We learn this from the apostles who after embracing Christianity, traveled all over the world more than ever before instead of living alone and merely building character. This is especially true of the end times where more work is needed. Nowhere does the Bible advise us to stop gospel work at the end times and infact Jesus did ask the Church to preach the Gospel till the end of this present world (Matthew 28:19,20).
(16) Simon’s vision of God’s plan is what we continue to see. In every period of the history of the church, there were those who saw the plan of God very clearly. Similarly, in every age there have lived people like the Zealots, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. The major historians of the world have primarily recorded details about such people, but there will come a time when the history of the true church will be recorded. Until then, we need to be careful not to be influenced by the hypocritical teachings of today’s Zealots, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes who are ignorant of God’s plan. Instead, like Simon we need to do the works of the gospel with the help of the Holy Spirit and live a happy life in the Holy Spirit in our expectation of the fulfillment of God’s plan. Amen.