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The Culture of Jesus – Part 1 – The Physical Culture
The purpose of this article is to offer an insight into the world and culture that we live in as compared to the culture that Jesus was in during His time on this earth. Also, to show our perspective as compared to His.
Often, we understand someone that we are listening to based upon what we know about that person, or “where they’re coming from”… where they live, what they do for a living, are they single or married and with or without children, etc. This lesson is designed to give you a glimpse of “where Jesus was coming from” and where He was trying to lead our minds.
Too often, we overlook the simplicity of basic research when studying about Jesus. We are searching for complex answers and justification of our own lives as we study about Jesus, and are often limited by finite thinking and personal experiences. In order to understand “where Jesus was coming from”, we need to return to the simple humanistic roots and traits of this man, whom we, as Christians, believe to be the son of God.
As you read about the culture of Jesus, there are two distinct cultures about him to understand. The physical, or earthly culture of Jesus’ day and time, is a return to the basics. You need to understand some of the basic cultural differences between Jesus’ time, and ours, but also the specific differences between the Eastern and Western cultures that still exist even today. The physical culture helps us to understand “where Jesus was coming from”, while the spiritual culture of Jesus tells us, in fact, “where Jesus came from” to impart upon this earthly journey. The spiritual culture of Jesus, that will be presented in a subsequent article, reveals what Jesus was trying to tell us about the spirit based upon examples of what we would understand by using the physical.
Now, let’s revert back to strictly the physical culture of Jesus for the remainder of this article. As you read, I believe that you will begin to understand more about who the person of Jesus was and the relavency of his teachings and examples here to us today.
Some of the following portions of this article are from a sermon preached some time ago by Ravi Zacharias, a christian converted about 30 years ago from Hinduism, based upon some of his personal knowledge and experiences.
In John 14:6, Jesus speaking to Thomas says, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” India, as we know it today, was one of the places that this same apostle Thomas visited… in fact, it was in what we now know as India where Thomas gave his life as a martyr, for boldly preaching about Jesus, and a memorial still stands in that country today. (This is interesting, since this is a country that worships 330 million gods, yet a memorial stands for the martyr of the One and only God, whom they reject the concept of as an all powerful single deity.)
I worked with many “India” indians and have been in some very interesting conversations with them. In many parts of the East, it is punishable by death if you change from your country’s religion to Christianity… from Islam, or Hindu, or Buddha, or Bahaism to Christian is a certain death sentence. Whereas we, as U.S. citizens have the right to worship any religion, many countries in the east do not enjoy such freedom. In Jesus time, it was also a threatened environment, often times leading to death. In studying about the different apostles, you will find that Paul was often in fear for his life or in prison for preaching about Jesus. John was beheaded for his beliefs. Others were beheaded or stoned to death for their belief and proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. While not always against specific laws of the day, certain powerful religious sects and political associations created a very dangerous threat for Christians in Jesus day. Even Jesus escaped some cities because he knew that some of these sought to kill him.
Also remember the several passages that refer to multiple deities. Some had so many ‘gods’ and idols that they even had one dedicated to an “Unknown God”. The east has literally millions of gods that are worshipped still today. Even of those of the same common beliefs, the conservative and extremist sects battle constantly. If we, who all believe in but one God, have disagreements and various interpretations, imagine how confusing it would be with millions of gods! The people in the east, therefore, tend to follow whatever their tradiitonal family beliefs because to research, study, and dispute them would be dangerous to their life, societal suicide, and would literally consume their entire life, and that of their children and grandchildren to arrive at any hint of religious origin.
Ravi Zacharias said this: “I came to Him because I did not know which way to turn. I have remained with Him because there is no other way that I wish to turn. I came to Him longing for something that I did not have. I remain with Him because I have something I will not trade. I came to Him as a stranger. I remain with Him in the most intimate of friendships. I came to Him unsure about the future. I remain with Him certain about my destiny. I came amid the thunderous cries of a culture that has 330 million deities. I remain with Him knowing that Truth (referring to John 14:6) cannot be all-inclusive. Truth by definition excludes all others.” Powerful, powerful words and faith.
East vs. West
The East is very different from the West in how it establishes value. This is absolutely key in understanding where Jesus was coming from. In the East, using India as a prime example of Eastern perspective, first and foremost is the strength of the nuclear family… Father, mother, and children. This is true of most eastern cultures today, and was the same in Jesus time. The culture is strong and holds sacred the reverence of the immediate family. The bonds of the household are wrapped tightly in the East. So much, that the success or failure of the children socially elevates or lowers the entire family. Individuality is swallowed up by the clan.
This is such a vital point in eastern culture that everyday, hundreds of advertisements are printed across the newspapers in what is called the “matrimonial section”… parents looking for spouses for their children. Every prospective bride and groom is advertised as being from “a good home” and searching for someone from “a good home”. “My son is an engineer.” “My daughter is a doctor.” “My son was first in his class.” “My daughter won a scholarship.” The boasts run on at social gatherings. Everything is done to keep the family as a whole as a single unit, with complete and utter reverence for the parents wishes on everything from jobs to marriage.
The second dimension, aside from the “glue” of the family ties, is the social reality of intense academic competition. Everything that defines an individual and his or her future is shaped by his or her performance in school. Every student wants to be the first in his or her class. It is not enough to just do well. You MUST be at the top of your class or close to it. Intellect is worshipped, and rewarded. This is relevant in that this is why we see the priests & scribes of Jesus’ day holding the positions & power they had. They were regarded as very learned men for their time, the highly educated men of the day; whereas Jesus was simply a lowly carpenter’s son, basically labelling Jesus as an uneducated or low educated man. Student’s grades and position in the class are printed in the leading newspapers for all to see. In Jesus day, it was by word of mouth that this same information travelled. The simple fact that Jesus was a carpenter’s son created the assumption in that culture that he was uneducated, thereby presenting a major challenge to Jesus’ credibility from his very birth. Success or failure is reason for public pride or shame.
Ravi stated in one of his sermons that one man he knew said, “One of my closest friends toyed with suicide after his high school exams because he did not stand first in the entire city of New Delhi. Another one of my classmates in college actually burned himself to death because he did not make the grade.”
If a father is in a high position, then his children are expected to achieve equal or greater social standing. A child’s worth and perceived intellectual ability stem from the father’s social position, and opportunities to the child are offered accordingly. Although the child can exceed expectations and restore pride to the family if the father is at a lower social level, the child can also permanently damage the entire family’s social standing if they fall short. Obviously, this creates an extreme amount of pressure on the children to outperform their parents; which for those with parents of the highest standing in the communities dooms several to fail before they even start, for how do you exceed the highest standing?
This combination of the standard of the Home and the standard in Society is a volatile, yet core mix of the Eastern person’s life. This value system is cherished with a passion, and very little has changed in this value system since Jesus’ day.
Now, understanding the importance of Family and Social Academic standing, let’s look at the Culture of Jesus, starting with Jesus’ introduction; not as a baby in this world, but as the Lamb of God, the Messiah that every Jew had heard, studied, and prayed about all of their lives.
Can’t you just imagine the conversation in the home of Andrew and Simon Peter, the earliest followers of Jesus, when Andrew first informed his family that he believed he had met the long-awaited Messiah? Here Andrew sits at the dinner table and he is saying that he just came from meeting the prophesied deliverer?! Any good Israelite had prayed for the coming of the One who could free His people all of their life, and now here this young man sits, saying that he has just spent hours with Him, and Andrew says he had even been given the opportunity to ask this Messiah any question he desired. Out of sheer curiosity, one at the table must have skeptically asked, “O.k., and what, perchance, did you ask Him?” “I asked Him where He lived,” comes the confident reply.
Now, our response would probably have been something along the lines of, “You asked Him where He lived?!” Can’t you just hear it from our perspective? “You what?! You get to ask the Messiah, the One who has come to save us, one question and that’s the best you could come up with?!” We would have thought that question to have been a total waste of time, wouldn’t we? This seems like a pretty casual & trivial question to ask the One who claims to be the Messiah, the One whom your grandparents, your parents, and you have prayed to come for generations, doesn’t it? We would not care where He came from. Based on today’s western culture, we would most likely want to know three basic things;
1. “Where is He?”, because we would want to know the quickest route to get to him, and maybe even what to punch into our GPS system in our cars to eliminate traffic getting there. After all, we would want to verify this for ourselves, in person, or it’s just hearsay.
2. “What can He do for me?”, because we would need to mentally perform a cost analysis to at least ballpark the ROI, Return On Investment, since we would be spending time and money to get there and see Him ,and those two items (time and money) are precious to us in western society.
3. “How fast can He do it for me?”, as our assumption would be that if we spend the time to get there and grace Him with our presence, there better be some good old-fashioned U.S.- expected instant gratification awaiting us.
The more I have thought about it, though, the more I am convinced that this would-be disciple had very sound reasons for asking what he did, especially in that eastern culture. This was the beginning of Andrew’s serious investigation into the person of Jesus. Was this truly the Christ, the Anointed One? For nearly 2,000 years, the prophets had told of His coming.
The Setting of the Question
The setting is given in the 1st chapter of John. Immediately, we notice the casualness with which Jesus made His entry. There is no drumbeat, no great fanfare or parades, nothing to herald the coming of the One whose name would be on the lips of humanity in a way that no other name had ever been, nor ever has since. These people exepected an earthly king that would finally, once and for all, take them to the top of the status food chain over the Romans and the rest of the known world. They wanted everyone to hear, see, and know that they had just been promoted to the top of the societal totum pole. Yet, Jesus came into action gently and almost silently compared to what hte people expected.
John the Baptist, or baptizer, was given the honor of making the unadorned announcement. John, draped in strange clothing (even for his day) and living off of even stranger food, was gaining a huge following. In the eyes of the devout, he was a prophet of supreme honor. Yet for John to have proclaimed this carpenter’s son from Nazareth as the Messiah was even stranger. No “king-maker” could have ever conceived such a modest approach for such a world-changing announcement, especially not in the East!
Yet, on that day at a divinely appointed moment, Jesus came to John to be baptized. Awe-stricken by this privilege, John stuttered out his own unworthiness of such an honor, declaring that he was not even fit to untie the sandals of his Lord. The scene is memorialized even to this day, however, by the dove descending upon Jesus. As this heavenly affirmation was given, John looked at two of his own followers and said, “Look, the Lamb of God.”
Think about this. This was a sobering statement from John the baptizer. The average Jewish family grew up with lambs and sacrifices. The temple probably reeked of animals and their slaughter, especially on the Day of Atonement. The exterior grandeur of the temple housed only a rather grim and messy alter. So, stating that this Messiah was the lamb of anything was even an unexpected and very unappealing concept. Every lamb sacrificed was a lamb of men offered to God. It wasn’t an equal to men, not a representative from among men, just a dumb unsuspecting animal brought into the temple, never to return.
Now, in this appointed moment in history, an offering came from God himself and was given by God on behalf of Humanity… the Lamb of God. One born for the purpose of being sacrificed on the alter someday. Yet, even with this grim picture of who this Messiah was, these followers of John who heard his pronouncement of Jesus as the Lamb of God turned from John to follow Jesus. You see, they knew and understood what this meant; the impact and greatness of this statement in that culture. For generations, men had sacrificed lambs to God; now, God was sacrificing a Lamb for men. If they understood the spiritual impact of that statement, they followed Him. If they failed to understand that one simple statement for the spiritual victory that it meant to them, they rebelled against Him.
Now, back to Andrew… wouldn’t this jolting introduction by John the baptizer, a respected supreme prophet, have provoked or inspired a different question from someone wanting to become a disciple of the Messiah? Remember the assertion that I made earlier, that in the East, the home is the defining cultural indicator. Everything that determines who you are and what your future holds is tied to your heritage and your social academic standing… absolutely everything. You see, in Jesus culture, the East, Andrew’s question was quite typical, and vitally important to these people in determining someone’s value or worth as a person.
It’s not at all surprising that Nathanial’s response when he was told about Jesus was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And some verses later, “Is this not the son of Joseph, the carpenter?” How in the name of reason could the answer to the hopes and dreams and prayers of Israel, in search of a Messiah, come from a city of such low esteem and from a family of such modest professional status? The best way for them to find out whether He could really be who John described Him to be was to follow Him to His house – to the earthly address of the One who claimed to be the Son of God.
Jesus’ answer to Andrew’s question, “Where do you live?”, builds the intrigue. He didn’t give a street name or house identification. He simply said “Come and see.” So, Andrew followed Him to where He was staying and evidently stays the night there. When he returns, Andrew tells his brother Simon and invites him to “Come and see” also.
The next day, Philip, who was also from the same city, invited Nathanial to join them, saying, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” There you have it again – the city and the parentage. After hearing that, Nathanial is skeptical and cynical, and given the same challenge, “Come and see.”
Now, here is a people who have been hearing about, praying for, and looking for this great Messiah, the Savior of their people, the King of Kings… man, they’re ready for a major blow-out power party and trumpets blowing and all the pomp and circumstance of the most powerful King ever known to come save their day… and here is this poor man that walks up, from the “wrong side of the tracks”, dirty from walking in the dry hot desert, hair ratty and tangled and dusty, and we are told that He was not spectacular or incredibly handsome… the son of just some carpenter that some of them know from this city that isn’t regarded with much respect socially, and he walks up and claims to be the King of Kings, the Messiah that you’ve listened to your grandparents, your parents, and teachers talk about as a great hero…this is the Lamb of God, God’s Son, the Hope of Hopes that we’ve been waiting on?
As important as His earthly parentage was, especially to these people in this culture, His home address was not an earthly one. From John, the same writer that we get the record of Andrew’s question from, the Gospel writer forthrightly states this in John 1:1 & 14: “In the beginning was the Word (which we know is Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”
The “Lamb of God” in a very real sense, had no beginning, as we understand beginnings in our mortal realm. Amid the “where” and “when” questions that plagued these people, and plague us today, there is no such encumbrance for the eternal and infinite One. We will look at more of this in the article on the Spiritual Culture of Jesus. He had an eternal perspective that He was trying to elevate them to throughout His teachings. Yet, He had to teach His message through earthly ideas within their culture that they could understand and relate to. Sometimes when we say that we just don’t understand the Bible, it is really because we haven’t taken the time to understand the culture that Jesus lived in or was teaching in.
The task ahead of Jesus when asked where He lived and He told them, “Come and see”, was to lift them beyond the here and now. Beyond the limited understanding of this world and truly show them how to follow Him home… to His home in Heaven.
Andrew had a reason for asking the question, and Jesus was offering a journey of thought as His answer. We will take that journey farther in Part 2 of this lesson, but for now, put yourself in Andrew’s sandals. He had been invited to the home of the One identified by a recognized prophet as the Lamb of God.
Now, to us today, would you recognize Jesus if He walked up to you? Would you recognize a darker skinned, brown-eyed, dirty, sweaty, poor person in torn filthy clothing and sandals with no real earthly belongings, what we consider as financially broke and destitute, as your Lord and Savior who has the power to forgive your sins and mistakes? Would you bow down at his feet, before this one called Jesus, in your dress pants and gold watch and nice hair and sweet smell? Would you worship Him and accept Him as He is, and believe Him when He speaks to you? Would you look at Him and try to be just like Him?
How about if He took you by the hand and said, “Here, stand with me. Let me look at you. I love you, do you know that? That’s why I hurt for you. That’s why I cry for you. That’s why I died that day for you. I’m so glad that you can finally really see me.” Would you ask, “Where do you live?” Would you want to follow Him home?
Jesus is still telling us today the same thing that He told Andrew ,hoping that we, too, will understand the importance of that question, and the relevance of His answer… “Come and see.”
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