Oil lamps bathed the room with a warm glow. Mouthwatering smells saturated the air: goat stew, fresh bread, savory sauces, marinated olives, and sweet wine. The rabbi who reclined at the head of the table was young, but he had an authoritative, charismatic presence that seemed to reach beyond the ages. He was shrouded in a clean, white garment reflecting the sanctity of the holy Sabbath day.
The students surrounding him remained silent, and all eyes focused on him as he lifted two round loaves of fine wheat bread. The students absorbed every nuance of their master’s behaviors: the way his hands gripped the loaves, his posture, and his facial expression. As he opened his mouth, his students observed his unique mannerism of glancing up to heaven: “Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who brings bread out of the earth.”
Followers of Jesus know that our mission in life has everything to do with him. Knowing him is our life’s purpose. We seek to walk in his footsteps.
Yet an unfortunate glitch in history has made knowing Jesus harder than it should be. Tragically, early on in Christian history, the church made a concerted effort to downplay the Jewishness of Jesus.
Being an observant Jew is not just a facet or dimension of a Jewish person’s life. For observant Jews, their Jewishness is the framework that contextualizes and gives meaning to every aspect of life. Yet this fundamental dimension of Jesus’ life was reduced to a minor detail of his backstory.
Ever since then, each generation and social group has envisioned him in its own image. Each group revises his skin tone, facial features, and clothing to match their expectations. People with strong opinions reframe Jesus’ values and message to support their moral and political leanings. He has become more of a symbol than a real person.
His authentic, essential character is hidden behind layers of our own creative and wishful thinking. This has caused Jesus to feel to us like either a distant spiritual being or an imaginary friend.
As someone who has studied Jewish sources for many years, I’ve learned insights about the Jewishness of Jesus and discipleship that have transformed my walk with him. This has helped me feel that my relationship with him is one with a real person, rather than a distant being.
Not Just an Admirer
Seeking the Jewish Jesus has taught me an important truth: It is essential to be a disciple of Jesus and not just an admirer.
Jesus had twelve main disciples, but he had many other disciples, too, both men and women. He instructed his disciples to raise up more disciples, and they did. The book of Acts describes how the number of disciples kept increasing.
Discipleship is how we grow close to him, and as we do, the purpose of our own life comes to fruition. Jesus did not invent discipleship in the first century. Discipleship was already the primary way ancient rabbis passed on their knowledge of faith and life. But the rabbi from whom a disciple learned was not merely a teacher. A student considered his or her teacher to be his master; the disciple was a servant.
A disciple’s purpose was to absorb as much information from his master as possible, in hopes of eventually becoming a copy of his master. As Jesus expressed it, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
Disciples followed their master constantly, observing his interactions, behaviors, and mannerisms. They learned their master’s interpretations and principles of thought. A disciple listened carefully and memorized his or her teacher’s sayings and discourses. That is why we have the Gospels today.
If we consider ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we have a job to do. We may not be able to observe him physically, but we must immerse ourselves in his life by reading what is written about him.
The Cornerstone Teaching of Jesus
Of all the sayings of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount represents his cornerstone teaching. Certainly, we must learn all that Jesus said and taught, but this is the perfect place to start. If you are a disciple of Jesus, learning the Sermon on the Mount should be a high priority. Your goal is to memorize it, study to discover its meaning, and apply it to your life.
This is not a list of things you must do to be saved. I’m assuming we’re past that point already. This is about the walk of someone pursuing God. It’s simply your calling as a disciple. “Disciple” is a job title.
It’s time to get started. Begin by learning to understand the Sermon on the Mount in its Jewish context. Start the process of learning it by heart.
If you take on this challenge, Jesus will no longer be like an imaginary friend. He will be your rabbi and master, and you will become his dedicated disciple on a mission to change the world. You will know Jesus as he truly is: the King of the Jews. You will feel as though he is a real person in your life. You will gain the ability to put his teachings into practice in a new way. And best yet, when these teachings are applied, they will change the world and bring us closer to the ultimate redemption.
If you want to study deeper into Jesus’ life from a Jewish perspective, I encourage you to join the study track, Jesus, My Rabbi, coming to Torah Club this fall.