“Arguing for the sake of heaven”

January 17, 2021

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’” (John 1:45)

Last week, I talked a little bit about how during the time of Jesus, everyone was looking for the Messiah. I spoke on the idea of a new King David to come and overthrow the Roman rule that had its grip around Israel.

Today I would like to talk about this passage from the Gospel of John, and give an idea on why these soon-to-be disciples are so excited to follow, as verse 49 in the NRSV translation, the Rabbi.

A few questions I had while reading this passage where, what was a mark of a good teacher at this time, what could have made Jesus stand out, and finally what does that mean for us today? 

First they would have studied Torah (first five books of the Bible) and had it memorized by the age of 5 or 6, which was common for most boys. After that, around age 10, they would have gone on to study the Oral Law which were rules that were set up as a buffer around Torah. 

The idea and intent being that, there was such reverence and respect for the Torah and the blessings of instructions on how to live, in order to avoid missing that mark there was a buffer set up so they wouldn’t fall into sinning (1).

From there, around 13, for the majority of the boys, they would learn their families trade, and continue on in their lives. However, those who were very talented would have gone on to study at their local synagogue, and the best of those would go on to become a disciple of a teacher, or rabbi (2). It was also believed that the mark of a good student, which would translate to a good teacher, was the ability to argue well. 

This is something we see throughout the gospels, Jesus interacting with the Pharisees and we can misconstrue these to be knockout fights, but this was a common practice. Arguing, or debating, with one another about the meaning of the text, was a way to discover truth. This practice is something that is called Arguing for the sake of heaven (3).

Finally, the goal of a teacher at this time would be to become, “a living example of what it means to apply God’s Word to one’s life” and to pass that on to their students (4). 

So, to summarize, someone who was well versed in Torah, the oral tradition, could argue well, and lived in a way that meant applying God’s words to their life. With all that in mind, we find Jesus telling people to follow him, to learn from him, and these are all people who would have either freshly learned their trade, or who have been in it for a while. 

Not only did they see something in Jesus, but Jesus saw something in them. Something where he said, “these people can pass on what they learn and live into God’s kindom in a practical way.” So often we believe ourselves not capable of living up to the teachings of Jesus we forget that Jesus believed in our ability to do it first.

At the beginning of this, I brought up how everyone was looking for Messiah at this time. The way I have heard this anticipation for most of my life was someone who would be born from the line of King David would arrive, and because of that lineage, they would expect a king-like figure to get rid of their oppressors. 

In Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg’s 2009 book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus can Transform your Faith, they point out that, “many of Jesus’ contemporaries were looking for a new Moses to deliver them from theri Roman oppressors… Moses is revered not only as Israel’s greatest deliverer but as Israel’s greatest teacher. (5)”

How different does our liberation look when we focus on the teacher that Jesus was, and hold on to the idea that people were looking for a new Moses. Moses the person who led Israel out of Egypt and who delivered the Torah. 

Liberation comes in all sorts of ways. But one of the ways liberation comes in the way of Jesus is from gathering alongside one another and learning. When we sit and learn from the text, and talk with each other, we learn from each other. We try and uncover the truth in a way that is worth following and imitating. 

Currently we find ourselves in yet more uncertain times, some of us are looking for a person who will come and fix it all, almost in the way of looking for a messiah figure. Someone to come and wave their hand to “restore” it all back to “normal”. Unfortunately, there is no one coming, Jesus already came and this is where we find ourselves. Which, I believe to be an encouraging thing.

Every day, we wake up and have the opportunity to continue to choose the way of Jesus. This way in which he believes we can live up to his teachings, in the same way that he believed the Apostles could do it and pass it along. And that my friends is good news. 

May the Lord’s grace and peace be upon you today, and throughout the rest of the week.

  1. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, pg. 24
  2. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, pg. 25
  3. https://rabbisacks.org/argument-for-the-sake-of-heaven-korach-5779/
  4. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, pg. 33
  5. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, pg. 31, 32

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