Hearing Jesus Through A Disciple’s Ears

What does it mean that Jesus lived as a Jewish rabbi who called and trained disciples? And how does learning about his teachings in their original context enable us to better live out our calling?

Jesus’ first followers responded to his words with actions that astound us. They left home, family, and comfort behind to follow him, risking their lives to change the world.

As life-changing as his teachings were in their original context, modern readers often struggle to see what provoked such a radical response. More than twenty centuries separate us. Could it be that the debris of time and cultural change have taken the edge off Jesus’ earth-shattering words?

What if we could scrub off the dust and dirt of the ages to see the original Jesus in the Gospels? What if we allowed the scenery around him to come to life, so that we could visualize him once again in his native context? Jesus’ words would not change, but they would burst with new meaning when understood in their original setting. We would see Jesus with new clarity as we bring into focus the fuzzy backdrop around him that is so foreign to our modern world—a place of rabbis and synagogues, nomads, farmers, kings, and shepherds.

It’s hard not to wonder if the early Jerusalem church might have had a few advantages in understanding Jesus that might help us as disciples today. In the first chapters in Acts we read of their amazing passion—their Spirit-filled prayers, their joyful gatherings, their loving generosity, and their dynamic witness to their neighbors.

Before a few years ago, one thing that never occurred to me is that the first believers of the infant Jerusalem church in Acts were all observant Jews, men and women who continued to study the Torah and worship in the Temple, even after they came to faith in Christ.

In fact, for the first half of Acts, the rapidly expanding church was almost entirely Jewish. It was only after God pushed Peter out of his comfort zone to witness to the Gentile Cornelius that the church considered the possibility that the gospel was for Gentiles too (Acts 10).

We Christians often neglect this as we retell the stories of the early believers’ joyful fellowship. We assume that the remarkable success of the Jerusalem church came from the fact that believers were freshly filled with the Holy Spirit.

But Paul’s Gentile church at Corinth had experienced the same outpouring, yet it struggled with immaturity, division, and sexual immorality. Why the difference?

As wonderful as it was that the Corinthians found Christ, most had come out of a pagan reality, and their lives had not been saturated by the Scriptures that Jesus read, our Old Testament. They lacked the Torah’s training in moral laws that Christ built upon. They had a lot of catching up to do.

Also, while the Gentiles worshipped Jesus as their Savior and God, the Jewish believers also knew him as their rabbi. As Jesus’ disciples, they knew their obligation was to memorize his words and live according his halakhah, his interpretation of how God’s Word teaches us to live.


[This is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2012)]


9 Responses to “Hearing Jesus Through A Disciple’s Ears”

  1. 1
    Karen Golden|December 14, 2011

    This really resonates me with Lois. It reminds me of how seeking God and His word becomes great comfort, strength and guidance in times of suffering or even temptation in our lives as the Holy Spirit can bring scripture to mind when we need it and reminds of us God’s faithfulness.

    Looking so forward to digging in to your new book. Thanks for giving us another taste of what is to come!

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    Valerie|December 15, 2011

    Having fallen in love with the Old Testament early on in my rebirth in God, I was turned on to your earlier book. It made a profound impact in cherishing our roots as a spiritual practice and worship that goes back long before CE 30. Since then, I’ve had many conversations with people who are keen to continue ignoring or minimizing the Hebraic roots of our faith. The Corinthian church is a fabulous and concrete example of the differences! What a rich heritage we are privy to when we embrace it. Thank you for doing all the legwork to introduce us decidedly Gentile people to the very meaningful context. It’s like being an expatriate in another country and receiving a fabulous cultural guide…

  3. 3
    Libby|March 23, 2012

    This really gives me hope for myself following in Jesus foot steps. when looking at the Corinthians and how they could change when they came from a culture that worship the sex, self worth and knowledge. And they still came to their faith and changed their ways I should be able to learn just as they learn. But we won’t be able to learn in the same way that they did. the culture that they had was different from the jewish culture and they bridged the gap and still became great Christians. So i am not worried that we come from a different culture the Jesus. Its how we follow him and not about the culture.

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    Matt Kiekintveld|March 23, 2012

    I think it’s interesting to think of the original church as practicing Jews. I’ve never thought about it in that light before. It’s a profound thought to think about the first Christians as being Jewish until Peter stepped up and started bringing it to the Gentiles. I think if we push past the layers of dust and dirt we can get to the really good stuff. We need to see Jesus less as a motivational speaker and more as a rabbi, and once we do we can begin to understand his ministry.

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    Erin|March 23, 2012

    I love the thought of this. I’m in a discipleship class currently with RVL, and before that, I had never even considered the Jewish roots to Christianity. Looking back on it now, it makes so much more sense to look at the Bible from a Jewish perspective, since Jesus and all the other early believers were Jewish themselves. I can understand Jesus and his message much more clearly now. It’s great to think that God pushed Peter to witness to Gentiles. Without that push, we may not have the faith we have today, which many of us grew up with. It’s great to see how listening to God can effect the people we don’t even know or have even been born yet.

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    Dave|March 23, 2012

    I really like your challenge of trying to view God in the light of his human culture. I really think that if we do this then I think that it would really help us to actually follow Him the way that He is meant, and the way that he said, to be followed.

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    Bryce VanDeWalker|March 23, 2012

    I love the thought about how, in context, Jesus’s words come to life. I’ve always struggled with finding excitement in the Bible. But now that I have been exposed to more of the context of Jesus’s life, and how He uses the Old Testament for almost all of his teachings, the gospels have become a vibrant wash of colors.

    I love your book Sitting At The Feet of Rabbi Jesus.

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    Kyle|March 23, 2012

    At the moment I am taking a discipleship course which often refers to the historical and cultural context of scripture. I absolutely agree that understanding that this was written thousands years ago is something that definitely should be considered when interpreting.
    There is a book called, “Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus” or SFRJ which is a great source to understanding who and in what context parables or stories are told by rabbi Jesus.
    We need to know that we think very abstractly, but Jesus’ culture was very concrete. When reading through scripture number also are of representation rather than value.

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    Meredith|April 22, 2016

    I always thought that it was cool that the disciples just left everything to follow Jesus. I never put to thought that it was what Jesus said that convinced them. Obviously he had to say something, but whatever it was it had to be amazing and astounding for them to leave their family, home and all their possessions. It is weird yet amazing to think that his words were so incredible, it made people from all around come and hear what he had to say. This is fascinating because a lot of times I don’t have the drive to read the bible and maybe this is because the text is translated as amazingly as it was first written. It makes me wonder what it was like listening to Jesus preach.

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