(An extract from “Rediscovering the Jewishness of the Gospel” by Gideon, M.Div. cum laude. Download and read the whole paper here.)
In order to have a deeper understanding of why the early apostles and followers of Yeshua made such a huge impact in the ancient world, we need to have a better understanding of what the good news of Yeshua meant to them. Moreover, we need to have a better insight into how they understood this new Kingdom Yeshua announced.
Central to the Jewish world of Yeshua, and affirmed by his teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven, was the idea that God was actively working within creation and bringing it back to its original intent. We know that the prophets spoke of God reclaiming the earth and restoring the world and everything in it and coming here at the end of time.
Throughout the New Testament, the various writers reflect this theme by using language such as “renewal,” “regeneration,” “rebirth,” “restoring,” and “reconcile.”
“He (Yeshua) has to remain in heaven until the time comes for restoring everything, as God said long ago, when he spoke through the holy prophets.” (Acts 3:26 CJB)
Sha’ul (Paul) writes,
“For it pleased God to have his full being live in his Son and through his Son to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through him, through having his Son shared his blood by being executed on a stake.” (Colossians 2:19-20 CJB)
To make peace, to bring back together, to mend what is torn and fix what is broken. In Hebrew, there is a word shabar which holds the meaning of something being utterly broken like a shattered clay pot. And it is only this shalom (peace), Paul writes about that can restore it.
It’s important for us to understand that for Paul, the apostles, and the ancient prophets, this is a much larger issue than just human souls. The Scriptures use phrases like “all things” and “everything,” because they saw it as all of creation.
Through Yeshua, God is restoring everything and putting it all back together. But in a bigger and better way than before. And to make the cross of Yeshua just about (personal) salvation is to miss the point that God is interested in “saving” everything.
Interestingly enough, the Greek word for “to save” is σώζω (sozo), which holds the meaning of “to heal” and “to make whole.” God, it seems, is in the business of healing all of creation and making it whole again.
But, what does any of this have to do with the early followers of Yeshua and why they were so impactful?
The early followers of Yeshua saw his resurrection as what they’ve been waiting and hoping for. It was the ultimate sign that God was restoring the world in a new and profound way. And in the first-century world, this claim that God was restoring all things, had massive social, political, and economic dimensions and implications to it.
A fact that many modern day Bible readers and Christians can easily overlook because of how different things these days are compared to the ancient world.
The first-century world was ruled by the Roman Empire, which in turn was ruled by a succession of emperors called Caesars. The Caesars claimed that they were in a sense the gods’ embodiment on earth, with the task of renewing creation.
Caesar Augustus, for example, believed that he was God incarnate on earth, a prince of peace who had come to restore all of creation. He even inaugurated a celebration called Advent to celebrate his birth. He also had a favourite popular slogan which said, “There is no other name under heaven by which man can be saved than that of Caesar.” He also had another slogan he used quite often which said, “Caesar is Lord.”
Throughout the Roman Empire, the Caesars forced people to worship them as some kind of divine saviours of humanity. Those who refused were met with violence, brutality, and often time’s death by way of crucifixion. The cities that acknowledged “Caesar as Lord” were called ekklesia (translated into English as “church”).
And in this created world of the Caesar, where they ruled like gods on earth, everyone had their place in society. There was a very specific order to things and people, which the Romans enforced with propaganda, fear mongering, and violence.
It was at this time and in this setting, that the first followers of Yeshua began a different kind of movement.
These followers claimed that their leader was a rabbi, but also long-awaited Messiah and new Son of David, who announced a different Kingdom, called the Kingdom of Heaven (God). And this leader, Yeshua, had been crucified but had also risen from the dead and reappeared to all his followers. They claimed that “Yeshua is Lord.”
Furthermore, the leaders of this movement of Yeshua claimed that in union with the Messiah (“in Christ”) there was a new order of things in which everyone was equal:
“…there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua, you are all one” (Galatians 3:28 CJB).
But these first followers of Yeshua also believed that this resurrected Messiah was working in them and through them to reclaim God’s dream for all of creation. We read in the book of Acts how the gospel writer Luke tells us that this reality was so powerfully at work in them all, that “no one among them was poor” because home and landowners would sell what they had and use those proceeds to take care of those who had less. Everyone was equal in this new messianic community, which they also called ekklesia.
Now, many modern-day Christians could read this and think “wow, that’s so great of them to do that,” but the Gospel writers didn’t include this detail to blow their own trumpet. They are trying to communicate something about the essence of what this Good News movement was about.
It’s important to remember that at that time the Caesars claimed that they were the ones providing for and saving everyone, and it was them who were making the world a better place.
So for these early followers of Yeshua, the major issue for them was: Who is Lord? Yeshua or Caesar? Who really provides? Who gives food? Who brings peace? Who makes all people equal? Who saves?
Therefore, to become a follower of Yeshua wasn’t first and foremost about getting your soul saved, but it was about becoming part of a messianic community, called ekklesia (church), which was a type of countercultural movement. It was about partnering with God in creating a new Kingdom in the face, and in spite, of the Caesars.
And these followers of Yeshua made sure that “nobody among them was poor”; they had enough to eat, they could pay their debts, and there was enough to go around for everybody.
For them, the resurrection of Yeshua wasn’t just a nice idea or abstract spiritual concept, but a powerful, indwelling, reality with very real world implications.
For them, God resurrected Yeshua from the dead to show the world that “Yeshua is Lord” and not Caesar (or Pharaoh or any other ruler or authority). It is through his power, his example, and his Spirit (Hebr. Ruach HaKodesh) that all of creation is restored.
And everybody could be part of that.
It’s interesting that according to the accounts of the Gospel writers, these first followers of Yeshua very rarely tried to prove that the resurrection of Yeshua actually happened. Ironically, because that is what a lot of time and effort of modern-day Christians have gone into. Proving something with measurable, quantifiable, or historical data.
And I have to wonder why they spent so little time doing that.
Perhaps, it’s for a couple of reasons with some interesting implications for us “sharing the good news” today.
First, a lot of the people who saw Yeshua after his resurrection were still around. If anyone had any questions about it, I’m sure they would just tell you what you wanted to know.
Secondly, it is important to know that everybody’s god in the ancient world (or at least the first century) had risen from the dead. It wasn’t a new idea. Even Julius Caesar was reported to have ascended to the right-hand of the gods after his death. So, an empty grave as proof for your claims about your god didn’t carry so much weight for most people in the Roman Empire. You needed more than that. You needed to stand out in a much more revolutionary and extreme way.
I believe that’s why so many reports of the first-century messianic community talk about “nobody among them being poor,” taking care of each other, sharing of possessions, and generosity. Perhaps they understood that people back then, like today, are most often not persuaded by logical arguments (even those you can prove without a shadow of a doubt), but by living, breathing, and real-life experiences. People could not deny the unconditional love, compassion, and generosity of these early followers of Yeshua in a world that was defined by the complete opposite.
I like what Richard Rohr writes when he says,
“Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of “Christian” countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I’m afraid.”
Somewhere else he writes,
Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” . . . The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.
The first followers understood this. They did not exist for themselves. This Yeshua movement did not exist for itself, but it lived to serve the world around them. They understood that it was ultimately not about them, but about all the people God wanted to bless through them.
They understood that God was in the business of restoring all things and they were conduits of that restoration, renewal, regeneration, and salvation.
And so, this first-century Good News movement gave itself away in various and radical acts of love, compassion, and service while expecting nothing in return. There was no agenda. All they had was a good news, announced by a resurrected Messiah, of this new, revolutionary thing called “the Kingdom of Heaven,” to which they were called and empowered by the Ruach HaKodesh to embody and display this new way of love in the most radical of ways.
But, to become such a person and a follower of Yeshua, the kind that selflessly serves like He did, is difficult and demands everything a person has. It ultimately calls a person to go against the flow of everyone else around you. It is a narrow way.
The modern-day Christian Church has at times become guilty of sharing a Yeshua and gospel that’s only about your soul and making life easier. But, Yeshua’s original invitation goes the other way: it’s actually about making our lives more difficult. He talked about “yokes” and “crosses.” Being generous, disciplined, focused, compassionate, peaceful, truly free, and loving are difficult.
That’s perhaps why Yeshua equated following him with building a house. A builder never starts a project until he has worked out the cost first. If he doesn’t do that he might run the risk of breaking the budget and running out of money before the project is finished.
Perhaps that is also why whenever the crowds got too big, the more demanding, difficult and challenging Yeshua’s teachings got. It seems like he wasn’t about making it easy for people to follow, even though everyone was welcomed. So, he kept pushing, challenging, and questioning until some left and some followed. Quite a different strategy from many modern-day churches chasing after everyone, while dancing to the required tunes of society to fill their seats and coffers.
The good news of Yeshua was great news, but the demand for true discipleship and following him, are more difficult than ever before. To truly be a follower of Yeshua, involve suffering on some level because to really engage with how the world around us actually is, means your efforts and heart will take some punishment from time to time. But, it’s a suffering we should acknowledge and engage. Following Yeshua might bring problems you have never imagined, and that’s OK. And we should never say less as announcers of the good news ourselves.
The good news of Yeshua is ultimately news of hope. And the Church, in a sense, has very little to say to the world around it until it learns how to become a place of real celebration while on this journey of restoration, rather than remain a place synonymous with any kind of violence or oppression or condemnation. And as long as it is in the main business of trying to prove the existence of God in order to prove the other wrong while pointing out everything that is bad or wrong or sinful in the world, it has very little to offer. The church should lead the world in affirming the goodness of creation, and the hope that God is in the business of putting it all back together again. We are people of hope and not people who are without hope.
As Brad Young says,
“The kingdom should not be confined to the end times. Jesus, moreover, never advocated violence or political domination to achieve the goals of the divine rule … He was not teaching violence or force as an acceptable method of operation. Jesus emphasized love, forgiveness, and acceptance. The kingdom is the power of God at work to help people. Jesus came to save. He came to teach a way of life. He taught his disciples to follow his example.”
Finally, someone once wrote,
“we have shrunk Jesus to the size where He can save our soul but now don’t believe He can change the world.”
May we come to discover afresh that his gospel, the original good news, means much more than the personal salvation of individuals. It means a social revolution, and we’re all invited to participate.
Shalom and blessings!