The teaching of Jesus did not take place in a vacuum. The life and ministry of Jesus were a grand extension of all that God had been doing in and through the nation of Israel. Jesus clearly stated, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt.15:24). Our initial efforts to understand that which Jesus taught must involve an attempt to hear His words as they would have been heard by the community to which He spoke. With this in mind, consider the following characteristics of the Jewish community and their religious condition.
1. Extreme Transcendence of God
There was a general imbalanced view of God’s greatness that made Him very distant. There was a view of holiness which led to God being so separated from evil that He became separated from the world and human life altogether. It is important to appreciate God’s transcendence but also recognize His immanence (God with us). Such extreme transcendence contributed to the rise of the following.
Religion was a formal affair about ritualistic and ceremonial observances and duties. Since God was remote, it was not about relationship but about carrying out the right acts at the right times. What was largely missing was doing so for the right reason.
We must avoid two extremes. Legalism (external religious standards without the right internal motive) and antinomianism (having no standards) are wrong and will not be supported by a right understanding of Scripture, in general, or the teaching of Jesus, specifically.
A degree of tradition is proper if it does not replace the reality upon which it is based. Jesus challenged people to recapture the real significance behind certain tradition with His “you have heard that…” statements. Such tradition was often based upon the shallow or incorrect usage of legitimate Old Testament concepts.
4. Over-emphasis on the External
Jesus was not against proper external manifestations of one’s religious commitments but emphasized that they are to be the fruit of proper internal realities.
Reflection and contemporary caution regarding the above ideas:
There are ways that we can approach life and religion that demonstrate that we do not expect God to be present – we think of God as “out there,” distant. At times, people behave in a way that they would not behave in the presence of other people but when doing so, act as though God is not present. When this idea affects our approach toward religion, it tends to produce the other three characteristics – religion becomes legalistic with an emphasis on external actions separated from right internal motives and tradition is over-emphasized, often separated from its original meaning and purpose.
“Religion was for Him (Jesus) an affair of the heart, of the inner life. The conditions of acceptance with God which He prescribed were wholly moral and spiritual. One may worship God with equal acceptance in any place. His service consists not so much in the outer forms of action as in the inward temper and character, in love to God and to man.
“He penetrated to the heart of the religion of His time, rejecting its mere husk, and preserving its essential kernel of truth. He did not repudiate the laws, customs, and beliefs of His age, but He developed into fulness the kernel of truth in them, and insisted upon their inner meaning.” – G. B. Stevens; The Teaching of Jesus