Jesus in Context
by Jim Myers
You can take something out of
context and make it mean just about anything - and that even includes Jesus. Many
of the most controversial doctrines originate from verses taken out of context. There are
rare individuals who actually read the verses before and after any verse they are
studying, just to make sure that everything is kept in context. But they may still be
taking things out of context - cultural context that is!
Culture provides us with the
foundational block of information that we use to understand our world. As citizens of
the United States of America we have our way, the American way, of
looking at and understanding our world. If you invited someone from Tibet to look at your
world, it wouldnt have taken you long to realize that they were looking through
very different eyes.
Viewing Jesus World Through His Culture
Jesus wasnt an American!
That is a tremendous discovery that many people have never made. His language
wasnt English. Not one of his sermons or prayers were spoken in English. If he
had, no one would have understood a word he said.
Jesus didnt go to
church. No churches existed then. Jesus didnt preach from the New Testament,
its books hadnt been written then. It will only take a few hours of reading about the
history of Christianity in any standard encyclopedia to check this out.
However, an incredible number of
Americans think of Jesus as if he were an American - just like them. They are always
looking at English words when they read his words. Many worship in a church, so they just
assume Jesus did too. They have a view of a Jesus that never existed!
solve this problem and see Jesus in his cultural context. It wont take us very long
to discover the answers to many of the questions that have been born out of disagreements
concerning Jesus words and actions - and what they meant.
Jesus lived in a land called
Israel, which has its own unique culture and way of understanding things. His culture is
the culture that gave us his Bible - the Old Testament, and the Christian
Scriptures - the New Testament. Today we call Jesus culture "Jewish."
Most people understand that the Old
Testament is the Jewish Bible. But a vast majority of the Christian world fails
to make the connection between the New Testament and its Jewish origins. In
general, the New Testament is a Jewish document written by Jewish
writers to a Jewish audience discussing Jewish issues. Keeping
Jesus words in a cultural context wasnt a problem back then. They were all
Jews! However, today most of the people reading the New Testament are neither
familiar with the Jewish culture nor even know anything about it. Obviously, it would be
very difficult for them to have a culturally correct understanding of its words -
including the words and life of Jesus.
A Better Understanding of
Jesus Life and Words
You are about to embark on a very exciting and rewarding journey as you
look at the life of Jesus through the eyes of his culture. I
know that you want to accurately understand his life, message, and purpose. Isnt
that a worthy goal for everyone, especially Christians?
The first event we'll examine in
Jesus life took place when he was only eight days old.
Luke 2:21-24, 39-40
eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the
name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their
purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present
him to the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of
the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons". . . When they had
finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their
own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor
of God was upon him.
Can you answer the following
Why was Jesus circumcised?
Why was it done when he was eight days old?
The answers to the first two
questions are known by probably every Jewish person alive today - because it is written
in the Torah (first section in the Jewish Bible) in Genesis 17:1-14.
Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, I am
God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and
you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God
said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the
ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name
shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make
you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I
will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout
their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring
after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where
you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their
said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring
after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between
me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant
between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when
he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with
your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your
house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in
your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the
flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
This section from Genesis is a
very important part of the Jewish culture of Jesus. It is the basis for the
establishment of both the people and land of Israel. Therefore, lets
review its major components one more time.
- God established a covenant with Abraham.
- The covenant had provisions that would include his future
- The covenant would be an eternal contract.
- The covenant gave Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan.
- Males were required to be circumcised.
- Newborn males were required to be circumcised when they were eight
- Any uncircumcised male would be cut off from Abrahams people.
Doesnt this help you better
understand the words about Jesus recorded in Luke? We now know the following about Jesus:
- Jesus became a member of the covenant God established with
- Jesus was legally bound to the land of Israel.
- As a male, Jesus was required to be circumcised by the law of his
- Jesus was required to be circumcised when he was eight days old.
- If Jesus hadnt been circumcised, he would have been cut off
from his people.
Even if Luke hadnt told us
that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were descendants of Abraham, we would have clearly recognized
it simply by understanding the Jewish culture. We also understand that Jesus
circumcision had both religious and political implications.
But there are many people who
lack this basic understanding of Jesus culture. When asked about this event they
respond, "Jesus was circumcised for health reasons." Sounds very American
Why Mary and Joseph
Whose duty was it to make sure
that every eight-day-old Jewish male became part of the covenant? Obviously the child
couldnt do it. It was the fathers responsibility to make sure that the child
was circumcised. Please dont let certain theological considerations obscure the
message of Luke. Even though much has been written about whom Jesus father was,
those who lived in the land of Israel at that time were unaware of that discussion. They
understood Joseph to be his father. Notice that Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple,
not just Mary.
Today it is still the Jewish
father's responsibility. Simon Glustrom, in The Language of Judaism (p. 293),
provides us with some good cultural information:
mitzvah (commandment) is more universally observed among Jews than the rite of
circumcision. From the days of the Patriarch Abraham to the present, the vast majority of
parents have accepted this covenant with God as a solemn responsibility.
Jews are not the only people who practice circumcision. Muslims also attach religious
significance to it. Many Christian children are circumcised today for hygienic reasons. No
people, however, place the same priority on the rite of circumcision as the Jews. The Brit
Milah is observed on the eighth day, even if the eighth day is the Sabbath or Yom Kippur.
It may be postponed only on reliable medical advice, or if it is impossible to obtain the
services of a mohel (circumcisor).
rulers had little success in trying to abolish circumcision . . . In the fifth century,
the Spanish King Sisibut ordered Jews to accept baptism in place of circumcision, thus
assuring them equal rights. Their answer was unequivocal: The law of circumcision is the
root of our religion . . . Hasten our death, for we will not surrender a single law,
especially one so important."
Marys Additional Responsibilities
There is very little information
about Jesus life between the time he was circumcised at eight days old and age
thirty when he began the work recorded in the Gospels. What took place during those years?
One way to fill in the blanks is by taking a close look at the information we do have
about his home and family members. Luke provides us with a glimpse of his mothers
religious observance in 2:22:
When the time
came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to
Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice according to what is
stated in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Luke pointed out that Mary was
doing this because it was written in her Bible. She demonstrated her commitment to her
religion by participating in the purification rites recorded in Leviticus 12:1-8.
The LORD spoke to
Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a
male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her
menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall
be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not
touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are
completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her
menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days. When the days
of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to
the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt
offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it
before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow
of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot
afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt
offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her
behalf, and she shall be clean.
There is one other cultural note
that you must be aware of to help you avoid making a mistake that is made very often by
many Bible readers. Mary hadnt committed an immoral act or broken some commandment.
The need for a sin offering is because of Marys ritually
unclean condition as a result of child birth. This condition was described in the
above passage from Leviticus. It had nothing to do with sin, it just meant
that because of her having given birth she could not participate in certain activities,
particularly religious ritual, until after her purification - she shall not
touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary. Only after the purification
ritual and sacrifice could Mary touch anything sacred or enter certain Temple precincts. Mary
did exactly what was expected by her culture.
Lukes account also reveals
information about their financial condition when he described the sacrifice required in
the Bible - "a pair of turtledoves
or two young pigeons." Remember the conditions in Leviticus 12?
"If she cannot afford
a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons . . ."
Redemption of the Firstborn Son
. . . Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem
to present him to the LORD (as it is written in the Law of the LORD), `Every firstborn
male is to be consecrated to the LORD. (Luke 2:22b-23)
Again, with the help of knowledge
about their culture, we are able to understand much more about what Mary and Joseph were
The LORD said to Moses: Consecrate to me all the firstborn;
whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals,
is mine (Exodus 13:1-2).
Before the creation of the
Levitical Priesthood every firstborn male was to work full time in Gods service. But
this was changed (Numbers 3:40-41):
LORD said to Moses: Record every firstborn male of the Israelite people from the age of
one month up, and make a list of their names: and take the Levites for Me, the LORD, in
place of every firstborn among the Israelite people, and the cattle of the Levites in
place of every firstborn among the cattle of the Israelites.
In return for the Levites taking over
this responsibility, every firstborn Israelite was required to be redeemed by
a payment of five shekels to a member of the tribe of Levi. Again, we see
Joseph and Mary doing what was commanded in their Bible. They took Jesus to Jerusalem to
consecrate him to the LORD and meet all the requirements of redeeming the
Despite the destruction of the
Temple, this ancient redemption ceremony continues to take place and is still widely
observed today. On the thirty-first day after the birth of the first son, a ceremony, to
which relatives and friends are invited, is arranged in the home. Among the guests is a
Kohen (priest), a descendant of the tribe of Levi. Today the ceremony is performed as
The father places
the child before the Kohen and says: My wife, like myself an Israelite, has
given birth to this firstborn son and I hereby present him to you.
replies: What do you prefer, your firstborn or the five shekalim you are obliged
to give me in order to redeem him?
The father says:
I prefer my firstborn son, and here is the money for redeeming him as I am required
The Kohen usually returns the
money to the parents, who contribute it to a worthy cause. The ceremony is usually
followed by a reception to express public thanksgiving for the privilege of redemption. (The
Language of Judaism, pp. 295-96).
Lets take another look at the
list of events Luke included in his opening words about Jesus:
Marys purification ceremony
Jesus redemption as a firstborn son
Luke did not include these
accounts just to take up space. He knew that these would be very important to his readers
who all understood exactly what they meant. Luke wasnt planning to write an account
that would be read by people from another culture 2000 years later. The
primary point Luke wanted to make for his Jewish readers was that every commandment
concerning Jesus birth as required by the Law of Moses had been observed. Jesus was
a son of Abraham and legal participant in the most ancient Jewish covenant.
I hope that this article has made you
much more aware of the cultural resources found in the pages of your Old Testament.
There will be many cases in which you will not only understand the writings of the New
Testament much better, but you will also be able to identify the time period in which the
event is taking place.
Begin to unlock the meanings of
the events and messages recorded in the New Testament. Take a new look at Jesus
world, see it through his eyes. Compare the way he saw it with the way that modern
Americans describe it in their Bible studies. Shouldnt that be a worthy goal for
every reader of the Bible!
When you began this study on page
one, I asked three questions:
Why was Jesus circumcised?
Why was it done when he was eight days old?
Why did Christianity not follow Jesus